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What Is Synchysis?

Megan Shoop
Megan Shoop

Synchysis is a poetic device frequently used by Latin writers to force the reader to concentrate on the meaning of the words by confusing their order. Usually, synchysis involves alternating the words in two phrases so that the modifiers are separated from their subjects. Another way to use synchysis features two adjectives followed by two nouns with a conjunction between them. This poetic way of speaking often drives emphasis and meaning into the phrase, allowing the reader to interpret it in several different ways. The mind doesn’t usually think in terms of synchysis, so the reader often has to focus diligently on these phrases to understand them properly.

One of the easiest ways to create synchysis in a poem is to separate modifiers from their subjects with a comma or a conjunction. For instance, an author might write “She danced and sang, swift and loud.” The initial meaning of this may seem to be that the girl’s dancing and singing were both swift and loud. The reader might also look at this phrase a bit harder and realize that her dancing was swift and her singing was loud. Confusing and mixing words this way usually gives these phrases multiple layers of meaning.

A synchysis forces the reader to focus diligently on phrases in order to understand them.
A synchysis forces the reader to focus diligently on phrases in order to understand them.

Another way to create synchysis is a bit more difficult, both for the poet and the reader. Alexander Pope gives a particularly complicated example here: “Matter too soft a lasting mark to bear.” Here, Pope reorders words to create a soft, translucent phrase that often takes the reader a moment to understand. He could have simply said “This soft matter will not leave a lasting mark,” but he purposely confuses the reader instead. Pope makes his point quickly but the phrase, unlike the matter mentioned in the quote, often leaves its own lasting mark.

Though some forms of synchysis don’t follow any set pattern, most examples contain an ABAB structure. The first A and B are usually adjectives, while the second A and B are the nouns that go with them. This pattern is sometimes written as abAB because the adjectives are simply descriptive and the nouns are considered more important. An example of this could be “pink cheerful flower girl.” In this example, 'pink' most obviously modifies 'flowers' while 'cheerful' modifies 'girl.' Synchysis often contains double meanings, and this phrase is no exception. The reader could interpret the phrase as defined above, but he or she should also link everything together, as in both the girl and the flowers might be cheerful and pink.

Discussion Comments


Ted, like the article says, synchysis comes to us from the ancients. Taking Latin as an example, this device in no way creates incorrect grammar. Because of Latin's noun endings telling the function of the word in the sentence, word order can be thrown out the window.

I imagine that early English poets were trying to mimic the ancients and kept this device going into English. I don't find it particularly fun or helpful in English, especially compared to its cousin chiasmus.


The last paragraph says the pattern will be, for most phrases, abAB, meaning the first ab phrases are adjectives, while the last AB are the nouns, but in most cases there are a variety of references that say the pattern is a-b-a-b meaning adjective noun adjective noun? Could you clarify?


I think synchysis can do something else besides just make the reader stop and think: it can also affect the rhythm and meter of the poem.

Certain kinds of poems are written in a certain meter (think sonnets, which are written in iambic pentameter). So using poetic devices that change word order can help the poet keep to the meter of the poem when just saying something in the right order won't do.

Although, I have to say I also find synchysis a bit frustrating to read, but I don't read that much poetry anyway.

@Ted41 - I know it can be frustrating sometimes trying to understand poetic devices, but I just don't agree with you. Poetry is supposed to be more creative than, say, a cover letter or an academic essay. Using poetic devices like synchysis is a way for a poet to add meaning and layer to their poems.

As the article said, synchysis forces the reader to really think about what the poet is saying, which I think is a good thing. Too often, people just skim through poems without trying to think of what the poet is actually trying to say. Anything that makes people slow down a little and think is a good idea in my book!

I used to be so frustrated by poetry in English class. I have to admit that stuff like synchysis just drives me insane. Why make poems even harder to understand than they already are by ordering the words in a weird way? Plus, it's not grammatically correct!

I know this sounds kind of overly critical, but I don't think people should bend the rules of grammar just to write poetry. There's a reason why some things are grammatically correct and some aren't, so those rules should apply to all types of writing, not just prose.

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    • A synchysis forces the reader to focus diligently on phrases in order to understand them.
      By: vpardi
      A synchysis forces the reader to focus diligently on phrases in order to understand them.