Chiasmus

An Introduction to Chiasmus

Chiasmus (derives from the Greek chiázō meaning “a diagonal or crisscross arrangement”), is a sort of parallelismOpens in new window which contains a sequence of two syntactically parallel elements (usually a clause) that are balanced with each other, in which the balanced elements are presented in reverse order rather than in the same order.

chiasmus diagram showing abba pattern
Fig1. Phrase attributed to Churchill — The pattern shown here is a notation for the meaning of the word “chiasmus,” which comes from the Greek letter X (chi).

As this diagram illustrates, war fills the A role and dishonor the B role.



Below, is a comparative example for clarity:
Parallelism
verbadverbverbadverb
The programmersworkedconstantlybut succeededrarely
Chiasmus
verbadverbadverbverb
The programmersworkedconstantlybutrarelysucceeded

Chiasmus is useful for giving texture and placing two elements together in close connection for contrast or emphasis, as you can see with the adverbs ‘constantly’ and ‘rarely’ in the examples above. The chiastic structure places them almost next to each other for greater contrast than would be provided by a strictly parallel structure.

A similar useful effect of chiasmus consists in the natural emphasis given to the end of a sentence. You will observe in the example below how the word ‘forgotten’ receives greater importance when it appears as the last word of the sentence.

Practical Examples

Example I
Parallelism
  • What is learned unwillingly is forgotten gladly.
Chiasmus
  • What is learned unwillingly is gladly forgotten.

In addition to contrast and emphasis, chiasmus can give stylishness and brilliance to sentences Opens in new window with no sacrifice of clarity Opens in new window. Reversing the order of independent and subordinate clauses is a major means of achieving this. This is demonstrated in the example below:

Example II
Parallelism
  • When the project was completed, the programmers departed; but when the malwares struck, the programmers quickly assembled again.
Chiasmus
  • When the project was completed, the programmers departed; but they quickly assembled again when the malwares struck.

In the example above, the chiasmus also prevents a pronoun reference problem. In the parallel form, suppose the writer had written,

  • “When the project was completed, the programmers departed; but when the malwares struck, they quickly assembled again.”

In such a case, they would create an unclear reference because it could refer either to programmers or to malwares. Thus, in the parallel example, the words the programmers must be repeated to avoid confusion. Observe how brilliantly the chiasmus permits a clear use of they.

Example II (focus on Chiasmus)
Chiasmus
  • When the project was completed, the programmers departed; but they quickly assembled again when the malwares struck.

The reversal of the balance from parallelism also allows one to alter the emphasis on the wrong idea. Sometimes rearranging the order may be the means to achieve this, as below:

Example III
Parallelism
  • The prime minister smiled at the audience when he was introduced. However, he frowned after the cameras were turned off.
Chiasmus
  • The prime minister smiled at the audience when he was introduced. However, after the cameras were turned off, he frowned.

In the latter sentence, the chiastic structure puts the emphasis on ‘frowned’ rather than ‘turned off’. However, note that a rearrangement of parallel sentences is not always effective. In Example IV below, the sentence using chiasmus emphasizes the relatively unimportant sorting at the end.

Example IV
Parallelism
  • Walking through the junkyard, the inventors spoke excitedly of their plans for a flying boat. Later on, sorting through the selected materials, they showed more reserve about the possibilities.
Chiasmus
  • Walking through the junkyard, the inventors spoke excitedly of their plans for a flying boat. They showed more reserve about the possibilities later on while sorting through the selected materials.

The Benefits of Chiasmus

  1. The reversal of structure may reinforce the speaker’s claim that there is a reversal or reciprocity of substance.
  2. A chiasmus sounds convincing. It creates a closed loop that appears to leave no opening for dispute.
  3. The reversal of sounds in a chiasmus is attractive, memorable, and sometimes fascinating. Hearing the same words in opposite order, and finding that they still make sense (perhaps even more sense than before), is surprising, and at its best might seem to be a minor linguistic miracle; reversing the order of words in a sentence normally leads to gibberish, yet in a good chiasmus it actually seems illuminating, and meanwhile also produces the usual benefits of repeating words regardless of their order: emphasis, euphony, and sometimes attractive rhythm.

Normally, a chiasmus that reverses the same words, calls attention to itself by showing strong emphasis. A chiasmus, however, need not repeat the same words in reversed order. It can instead consists just of a structural reversal, with the two halves of the device using different words that have a parallel structure, as we shall see in subsequent examples below:

  1. “In telling this tale I attempt no compliment to my own sagacity. I claim not to have controlled events but confess plainly that events have controlled me.”
    — Lincoln, letter to A.G. Hodges (1864)
  2. “We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.”
    — Churchill, speech in the House of Commons (1943)

  3. “In short, we do not get good laws to restrain bad people. We get good people to restrain bad laws.
    — Chesterton, Thoughts around Koepenick (1915)

  4. “Affections, like the conscience, are rather to be led than drawn; and, it is to be feared, they that marry where they do not love, will love where they do not marry.”
    — Fuller, The Holy State and the Profane State (1642)
  5. “Oh! Sir,” answered Jones, “it is as possible for a man to know something without having been at school, as it is to have been at school and to know nothing.”
    — Fielding, Tom Jones(1749)
  6. “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.”
    — Conan Doyle, A Scandal in Bohemia (1891)
  7. “It’s an epitome of life. The first half of it consists of the capacity to enjoy without the chance; the last half consists of the chance without the capacity.”
    — Twain, letter to Edward Dammitt (1901)
  8. “Our former minister thought of nothing but negotiating when he ought to have thought of nothing but war; the present minister has thought of nothing but war, or at least its resemblance, when he ought to have thought of nothing but negotiation.”
    — Pitt, speech in the House of Commons (1743)
  9. Men need not trouble to alter conditions, conditions will so soon alter men. The head can be beaten small enough to fit the hat.”
    — Chesterton, What’s Wrong with the World (1910).
  10. And finally; “The legislature must be controlled by the constitution, and not the constitution by them.”
    — Brutus no.11 (1788)

In all these cases the A element in the A B B A pattern consists of two different words that point to the same meaning, while the B element consists of the same word.

Further Readings:
Robert A Harris: Writing with Clarity and Style: A Guide to Rhetorical Devices for Contemporary WritingOpens in new window