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What is a Chiasmus?

Tricia Christensen
By
Updated May 23, 2024
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Chiasmus is a literary or rhetorical device used for spicing up language, and making it more interesting. It reverses the order of modifiers, or simply sentence structure in two connected, called parallel, clauses. A simple example of chiasmus is the following:

He led bravely, and we bravely followed.

In the above case, the simple construction varies in the two clauses. In the first clause, the verb is followed by the adverb. In the second, the verb follows the adverb. This is AB, BA structure. A equals the verb, and B the adverb. The verbs in this case are led and followed and the adverb in both clauses is the word bravely.

Poetry and work from the Bible contains a number of chiasmus examples. The AB, BA structure can be complicated into an ABC,CBA structure as it is in the following quotation from Genesis 9:6. “He who sheds the blood of man, by man, shall his blood be shed.” In the first clause A= He who sheds, B =the blood, C = of man. In the second clause, C= by man, B = his blood, A = be shed.

Chiasmus can also reverse the order of letters for literary effect. For example, one could say: “A mind is a terrible thing to waste, but a waist is a terrible thing to mind.” In this case, homophones waste and waist sound the same, but have different meanings.

Chiasmus can also be implied only. For example the Kermit the Frog quote “Time’s fun when you’re having flies,” implies the parallel phrase, “Time flies when you’re having fun.” It isn’t necessary to quote the parallel phrase in order to use chiasmus in this sense.

Phonetic chiasmus changes sounds in order to achieve the criss-cross structure of parallel clauses. One of the most famous of these is: “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me, than a frontal lobotomy.” Many jokes are built around phonetic chiasmus. For example, the joke: What’s the difference between a boxer and someone who has a cold? is answered with this chiasmus:

"The first one knows his blows
And the second blows his nose."

One very specific form of chiasmus is called antimetabole. This is when the same words are used but in reverse order. The most recognizable antimetabole example in modern times is the famous John F. Kennedy quote, “Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.” What your country can do for you, is mixed up but contains all the same words that are in what you can do for your country.

Antimetabole is a type of chiasmus, but not all chiasmus are a type of antimetabole. Hopefully you caught that sentence as a chiasmus and an antimetabole. Since repetition can form such an interesting part of speeches and writing, chiasmus definitely can be found in numerous places, and you can practice using it in your own work for emphasis, humor, or greater effectiveness. Look for examples of chiasmus in poetry, political speeches, the Bible, literature, and advertisements.

Also note when you refer to this figure of speech, it is “chiastic" not chiasmic. The plural form of chiasmus, chiasmi is not commonly used, and most people use chiasmus for both singular and plural form.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By anon995875 — On Jun 05, 2016

Some of the best chiasmus in history are in the Book of Mormon. See Alma 36, 1 Nephi 1-3, and Mosiah 4-6. These are whole chapters that are chiastic.

By anon989134 — On Feb 21, 2015

I thought Chiasmus is the purest form of Antimetabole.

Some of those quotes posted seem to fit the definition of Antimetabole better than Chiasmus.

Chiasmus follows a strict rule of ABCCBA, whereas Antimetabole is lax and can loosen up so that it reads ACBCBA.

At least that's how I understood it to differ.

By momothree — On Sep 27, 2010

A few more:

“Men do not quit playing because they grow old; they grow old because they quit playing.” Oliver Wendell Holmes

“Think like a man of action, act like a man of thought.” Henri Louis Bergson

Comparing America to England: “In England, we ask for the bill and pay with a check, while here in America I ask for the check and pay with a bill.”

By christym — On Sep 27, 2010

Here are a few examples of chiasmus that I thought were interesting:

“Quitters never win and winners never quit” –Author unknown

“It’s not the men in my life; it’s the life in my men.” – Mae West

“The value of marriage is not that adults produce children, but that children produce adults.” – Peter De Vries

“Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” – Matthew 23: 11-12

By GardenTurtle — On Sep 27, 2010

My dad has a sticker on his motorcycle helmet that says "I live to ride and I ride to live". Thought that would be a great example.

By lori43 — On Sep 20, 2010

I've always thought it was interesting that Japanese grammar has a very similar structure to the English chiasmus. A typical Japanese sentence will flow as such: noun(object) + (subject noun or adjective) + verb. So a Japanese sentence might translate directly to something like this: "I to school went", which is somewhat reminiscent of a chiasmus in terms of the grammatical components that have been switched. It should also be noted that Yoda of Star Wars fame speaks in chiasmus about half the time.

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen

Writer

With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor,...
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