Chiasmus is a rhetorical device that occurs when the grammatical structure of a previous phrase or clause is reversed or flipped.
In simple terms, chiasmus happens when the writer says one thing and then says something very similar in the next line, but the grammatical structure has been reversed. It’s most common to find chiasmus between individual sentences but it is possible to use it and understand it on a larger scale. This device is usually used to craft a particularly effective passage and draw attention to an idea. By saying something one way and then turning it around and saying it differently the reader is confronted with the idea twice, in different ways, and should therefore have a better understanding of what the author wants to convey.
Definition and Explanation of Chiasmus
Chiasmus focuses on emphasizing something through a change in grammatical structure. When the writer reiterates something they said with a change in structure, or a complete reversal, the reader should take note of it and realize that this passage is of importance. Sometimes this rhetorical device occurs within a single line, between two sentences, or even between paragraphs. The latter is less common and harder to spot than the previous two possibilities. It could occur if someone talked about three things in one paragraph and then in the next talked about the same three things but in reverse order.
Examples of Chiasmus
There are numerous well-known examples of chiasmus, most of which are found in quotes. The following examples are phrased in the way they are so that readers are forced to contemplate how the two reversed phrases interact with one another and why/how they make one another even more important.
Live simply so that others might simply live.
This quote is usually attributed to Gandhi but like many famous quotes, it’s not entirely clear who said it. Either way, the line is a perfect example of chiasmus. The speaker suggests that “your” actions affect other people’s ability to live good lives. If “you” choose to “live simply” then your use of resources and impact on the world will allow others to “simply live,” or have enough to make it through their lives. This line is also an example of antimetabole.
Another example comes from Das Capital by Karl Marx. The quote reads:
In the pre-capitalist stages of society, commerce rules industry. In capitalist society, industry rules commerce.
This is only one example of chiasmus from his book, there are several others. It is one of the major features of his writing. Some of the examples readers can find are quite complicated with the repetition lending itself to complications before his meaning becomes clear. In this particular passage, he’s speaking about the difference between the work and production of goods in a capitalist society and today.
Here are a few more examples
- Love as if you would one day hate, and hate as if you would one day love.
- Bad men live that they may eat and drink, whereas good men eat and drink that they may live.
- His time a moment, and a point his space.
- The instinct of a man is / to pursue everything that flies from him, and / to fly from all that pursues him.
- All for one and one for all!
Chiasmus, Parallelism, and Antithesis
Chiasmus, in most cases, is a form of parallelism. This is seen through the repetition of the same phrase, although it is reversed. Generally, with parallelism, the same words are used in the same order, although some changes might occur between the two. Antithesis is a two-part grammatical structure that’s similar to chiasmus but has an important difference. Antithesis means that rather than the grammatical structure being reversed, the words in the first phrase are replaced by their opposite. The famous Neil Armstrong quote, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind” is the perfect example. “Small step” is replaced with “giant leap” and “a man” is replaced with “mankind.”
Antimetabole is another related device, one that’s often used as a synonym for chiasmus. The following quote, which comes from John F. Kennedy in 1961, is one of the best examples. It reads:
Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.
These are some of the most famous lines spoken by the late president. They remind all those listening that having a successful country takes more than demanding resources from it. Instead, one must give back to “do” something for their country.
It’s generally thought that not all chiasmus are antimetaboles but all antimetaboles are chiasmus.
Why Do Writers Use Chiasmus?
Chiasmus is an interesting rhetorical device that allows writers to create lyrical phrases that are easy to remember after they’ve been read. It helps to create a special emphasis on an idea or action as well. Often these phrases appear quite simple due to the repetition of the same words, but it is through this repetition that readers are further introduced to that which the writer wants to emphasize. If a writer wants to create a line that’s particularly memorable in a passage of writing, using chiasmus is usually a good way to accomplish that task. But, writers have to be careful that their efforts don’t come across as too didactic and obvious. This would have the opposite effect.
- Chiasmic structure
Related Literary Devices
- Anaphora: the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession.
- Figurative Language: figures of speech that are used in order to improve a piece of writing.
- Imagery: the elements of a literary work that engage a reader’s senses. These are the important sights, sounds, feelings, and smells.
- Malapropism: occurs when a writer, character, or other source uses a word incorrectly, usually rendering the sentence nonsensical.
- Juxtaposition: a literary technique that places two unlike things next to one another.
- Metonymy: a kind of figurative language that refers to a situation in which one term is substituted for another.