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For application of chiasmus on larger scale structure, see Chiastic structure.
Chiasmus represented as a "X" structure. When read left to right, top to bottom, the first topic (A) is reiterated as the last, and the middle concept (B) appears twice in succession.

In rhetoric, chiasmus (Latin term from Greek χίασμα, "crossing", from the Greek χιάζω, chiázō, "to shape like the letter Χ") is the figure of speech in which two or more clauses are related to each other through a reversal of structures in order to make a larger point; that is, the clauses display inverted parallelism. Chiasmus was particularly popular in the literature of the ancient world, including Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, where it was used to articulate the balance of order within the text. As a popular example, many long and complex chiasmi have been found in Shakespeare and the Greek and Hebrew texts of the Bible.[1][2] It is also found throughout the Book of Mormon.[3]

Today, chiasmus is applied fairly broadly to any "criss-cross" structure, although in classical rhetoric it was distinguished from other similar devices, such as the antimetabole. In its classical application, chiasmus would have been used for structures that do not repeat the same words and phrases, but invert a sentence's grammatical structure or ideas. The concept of chiasmus on a higher level, applied to motifs, turns of phrase, or whole passages, is called chiastic structure.

The elements of simple chiasmus are often labelled in the form A B B A, where the letters correspond to grammar, words, or meaning. For example John F. Kennedy said "ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country".

Inverted meaning[edit]

But O, what damned minutes tells he o'er
Who dotes, yet doubts; suspects, yet strongly loves.
Shakespeare, Othello 3.3

"Dotes" and "strongly loves" share the same meaning and bracket "doubts" and "suspects".

dotes doubts suspects strongly loves

Inverted grammar[edit]

A reversed order of the grammar in two or more clauses in a sentence will yield a chiasmus.

Consider the example of a parallel sentence:

  • "He knowingly led and we blindly followed"
(A B A B)
(Subject, adverb, verb, conjunction (cross), subject, adverb, verb.)

Inverting into chiasmus:

  • "He knowingly led and we followed blindly"
(A B B A)
(Subject, adverb, verb, conjunction (cross), subject, verb, adverb.)

Other examples:

  • "By day the frolic, and the dance by night". Samuel Johnson The Vanity of Human Wishes.
(prepositional phrases and gerunds in reverse order)
  • "His time a moment, and a point his space." Alexander Pope Essay on Man, Epistle I.
(possessive phrases with nouns; also note that this is an example of chiasmus of inverted meaning "time and space", "moment and point")
  • "Swift as an arrow flying, fleeing like a hare afraid"

The clause above follows the form of adjective, simile, participle, participle, simile, adjective (A B C C B A). In parallel form:

  • Swift as an arrow flying, afraid like a hare fleeing.
(A B C A B C)

In religious texts[edit]

Biblical texts[edit]

The ancient Hebrew and Greek texts of the Old and New Testaments are rich in chiasmus. Many of these have become lost in translation, but hundreds of others remain. The following examples are indented to show the parallel structure of the text.

A "But many that are first
    B shall be last;
    B1 and the last
A1 shall be first." Jesus (Bible: Matthew 19:30.)

A "Do not give what is holy to dogs,
    B and do not throw your pearls before swine,
    B1 lest they (the pigs) trample them under their feet,
A1 and (the dogs) turn and tear you to pieces." Jesus (Bible: Matthew 7:6.)

A "Make the heart of this people fat,
    B and make their ears heavy,
        C and shut their eyes;
        C1 lest they see with their eyes,
    B1 and hear with their ears,
A1 and understand with their heart, and convert [return], and be healed." (Bible: Isaiah 6:10)

A "Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
    B to the house of the God of Jacob
        C ... and we will walk in his paths ...
            D And he shall judge among the nations ...
                E they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
                E1 and their spears into pruninghooks:
            D1 nation shall not lift up sword against nation ...
    B1 O house of Jacob,
A1 come ye,
        C1 and let us walk in the light of the Lord" (Bible: Isaiah 2:3-5)
(Note: in this example, C1 does not fall where it is expected to fall; it follows A1.)

A Remember
  B Jesus Christ
    C raised from the dead
      D descended from David. This is my gospel
        E for which I am suffering
          F even to the point of being chained like a criminal
          F1 But God's word is not chained
        E1 Therefore I endure everything
      D1 for the sake of the elect, that they too
    C1 may obtain the salvation that is in
  B1 Christ Jesus
A1 with eternal glory.
(Bible: 2 Timothy 2:8-10)

The Book of Mormon[edit]

The Book of Mormon is rich in chiastic expression:

A "... but men drink damnation to their own souls except they humble themselves
    B and become as little children,
        C and believe that salvation was, and is, and is to come, in and through the atoning blood of Christ, the Lord Omnipotent.
            D For the natural man
                E is an enemy to God,
                    F and has been from the fall of Adam,
                    F1 and will be, forever and ever,
                E1 unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit,
            D1 and putteth off the natural man
        C1 and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord,
    B1 and becometh as a child,
A1 submissive, meek, humble ..." (Book of Mormon: Mosiah 3:18-19)

The Qur'an[edit]

The Qur'an also contains several examples of chiasma. These exist in the Arabic Quran to this day. In the Verse of the Kursi, considered the greatest verse of the Qur'an (2:255), the following structure is seen:

A God - there is no deity except Him, the Ever-Living, the Sustainer of existence
   B Neither drowsiness overtakes Him nor sleep
     C To Him belongs whatever is in the heavens and whatever is on the earth
       D Who is it that can intercede with Him except by His permission?
         E He knows what is [presently] before them
         E1 and what will be after them
       D1 and they encompass not a thing of His knowledge except for what He wills
     C1 His Kursi extends over the heavens and the earth
   B1 and their preservation tires Him not
A1 And He is the Most High, the Most Great

The story of Joseph is mentioned at length in the twelfth chapter of the Qur'an, spanning over 100 verses. Named Joseph, the chapter contains chiasma throughout:

A We relate to you, [O Muhammad], the best of stories in what We have revealed to you of this Qur'an although you were, before it, among the unaware. (12:3)
   B [Mention] when Joseph said to his father, "O my father, indeed I have seen in a dream eleven stars and the sun and the moon; I saw them prostrating to me." (12:4)
     C [One of Joseph's brothers said] "Kill Joseph or cast him out to [another] land; ... and you will be after that a righteous people." (12:9)
       D And she [wife of Al-Azeez], in whose house he was, sought to seduce him [Joseph]. She closed the doors and said, "Come, you." (12:23)
         E And when they [women of the city] saw him, they greatly admired him ...and said, "Perfect is God! This [Joseph] is not a man; this is none but a noble angel." (12:31)
           F Then it appeared to them after they had seen the signs that al-'Azeez should surely imprison him [Joseph] for a time. (12:35)
           G The king said, "Indeed, I have seen [in a dream] seven fat cows being eaten by seven [that were] lean, and seven green spikes [of grain] and others [that were] dry. (12:43)
           G1 [Joseph interpreted], "You will plant for seven years consecutively; ... Then will come after that seven difficult [years] which will consume what you saved for them" (12:47-48)
           F1 And the king said, "Bring him to me. [i.e. release Joseph from prison]" (12:50)
         E1 Said [the king to the women], "What was your condition when you sought to seduce Joseph?" They said, "Perfect is God! We know about him [Joseph] no evil." (12:51)
       D1 The wife of al-'Azeez said, "Now the truth has become evident. It was I who sought to seduce him [Joseph], and indeed, he is of the truthful. (12:51)
     C1 [Joseph's brothers] said, "By God, certainly has God preferred you [Joseph] over us, and indeed, we have been sinners." (12:91)
   B1 And he [Joseph] said, "O my father, this is the explanation of my vision of before. My Lord has made it reality." (12:100)
A1 That is from the news of the unseen which We reveal, [O Muhammad], to you. (12:102)

In Latin[edit]

Chiasmus is often used in Latin poetry as an alternative form of the golden line, and it can be found in prose as well.

visceribus atras pascit effossis aves (10)

"He feeds the black birds with his gutted wounds"


(A and B denote nouns; a and b denote adjectives and the nouns they modify; V is the verb.)

Adest vir summa auctoritate et religione et fide, M. Lucullus, qui se non opinari sed scire, non audisse sed vidisse, non interfuisse sed egisse dicit. (8)

"There is a man present of the highest authority, duty, and faith, M. Lucullus who (will testify) that he himself does not believe but knows, did not hear but saw, was not only present but did it himself."

The grammar of the Latin follows the form of Verb, Subject, ablative, ablative, ablative, Subject, (relative clause in indirect statement), infinitive verb phrase, infinitive verb phrase, infinitive verb phrase, Verb. The ablatives of quality are bracketed by the subjects they modify and form a chiasmus within a chiasmus.

A B b b b B a a a A

For example, in his letter about the death of Pliny the Elder, he described his uncle sailing into danger to save others:

festinat illuc unde alii fugiunt

"He hurried to the place from where others were fleeing."

Here, he (the writer and nephew, Pliny the Younger) places the verbs festinat (hurried) and fugiunt (were fleeing) on the outside of the chiasmus, and the adverbs illuc (to the place) and unde (where from) in the middle to form the cross. This contrasts the two actions (hurrying and fleeing), and emphasizes the bravery of the uncle (Pliny the elder).

Chi figures Christ[edit]

In Christian poetry, chiasmus takes on added meaning since Chi is the first element of Chi Rho, the first letters of "Christ" in Greek, and since the "X" that characterizes chiasmus stands for the cross on which Christ was crucified. Thus, Christian poets have utilized chiasmus in very specific places to direct attention to an added layer of meaning. A good example is found early on in John Milton's Paradise Lost, in a passage where the Son of God tells his father that untempered justice without mercy is an unlikely course of action in his predicted punishment for Man's fall: "That be from thee farr, / That farr be from thee" (Bk.3, 153-54).[4]

be from thee farr farr be from thee

The Son of God's future role as Christ is prefigured as it were by the utilization of the cruciform chiasmus (be—far/far—be); Christ's crucifixion will be the beginning of God's mercy tempering his justice. Earlier in the same passage chiasmus was already used in the description of the Son of God's appearance: "In his face / Divine compassion visibly appeerd, / Love without end, and without measure Grace" (140-42).[4][5]

Love without end without measure Grace

Synonym for antimetabole[edit]

These examples are often quoted by modern commentators to demonstrate chiasmus, although they are defined as antimetabole in the classical sense.[citation needed][clarification needed]

Short examples[edit]

  • "In peace sons bury their fathers, but in war fathers bury their sons."—Croesus, 6th century BC
  • "By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail."—Benjamin Franklin
  • "Oh, you haven't, haven't you?"—Charles Dickens Oliver Twist, 1838[6]
  • "I mean what I say" and "I say what I mean"—Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, 1865
  • It is not how old you are but how you are old.—Attributed to Jules Renard (1864–1910)[7]
  • "People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care."―attributed to Theodore Roosevelt[8]
  • The newspaper ... comforts th' afflicted, afflicts th' comfortable....—Mr. Dooley, in Observations by Mr. Dooley, Finley Peter Dunne, 1902, p. 240
  • "Well, it's not the men in your life that counts, it's the life in your men."—Mae West in I'm No Angel (1933)
  • "Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life."—J. R. R. Tolkien through the character Gandalf, 1954
  • "What counts is not necessarily the size of the dog in the fight—it's the size of the fight in the dog."—Dwight D. Eisenhower January 1958 speech to the Republican National Committee
  • "Let us never negotiate out of fear—but let us never fear to negotiate.—John F. Kennedy Inaugural Address, January 20, 1961
  • "... ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country".—John F. Kennedy Inaugural Address, January 20, 1961
  • "Mankind must put an end to war or war will put an end to mankind."—John F. Kennedy
  • For the loser now will be later to win ... And the first one now will later be last ..."—The Times They Are a-Changin'", Bob Dylan, released 1964
  • "It's not how long you make it, it's how you make it long!"—advertisement for Winston Super Kings cigarettes, 1967[9]
  • "America did not invent human rights. In a very real sense, it is the other way round. Human rights invented America."—Jimmy Carter, 1981[10]
  • "Laid back, with my mind on my money and my money on my mind."—Snoop Dogg in the song "Gin and Juice", 1993
  • "Lust is what makes you keep wanting to do it, even when you have no desire to be with each other. Love is what makes you keep wanting to be with each other, even when you have no desire to do it."—Judith Viorst's Love and Shrimp, 1993[11]
  • "They say money don't make the man but man, I'm makin' money." Tupac Shakur in the song "Thug Passion" (c. 1996)
  • "Let's make sure that the Supreme Court does not pick the next president, and this president does not choose the next Supreme Court."—Albert Gore Jr. at the 2004 Democratic National Convention
  • "People the world over have always been more impressed by the power of our example than by the example of our power."—Bill Clinton at the 2008 Democratic National Convention
  • "In America, you can always find a party. In Soviet Russia, the Party can always find you!"—Yakov Smirnoff (See Russian Reversal)
  • "When the going gets tough, the tough get going!"—Anon.
  • I say what I like and I like what I say.

Descriptive examples[edit]

  • Fecerunt itaque ciuitates duas amores duo, terrenam scilicet amor sui usque ad contemptum Dei, caelestem uero amor Dei usque ad contemptum sui. "Likewise, two cities have been formed by two loves, the worldly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God, the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self." Augustine, City of God, XIV.28 (AcBdAdBc) (parallelism with love & contempt, chiasmus with self and God).
  • "You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man." Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself
  • "Who sheds the blood of a man, by a man shall his blood be shed..." Genesis 9:6[12]
    In the original Hebrew the above phrase is exactly six words long, in the form (A B C C B A)

Chiasmus does not need to be lexical; it can also be aural, as the classic quotes,

  • "I'd rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy."
  • "Champagne for my Real Friends; Real Pain for my Sham Friends."

Conceptual chiasmus[edit]

Chiasmus can be used in the structure of entire passages to parallel concepts or ideas. This process, termed "conceptual chiasmus", uses a criss-crossing rhetorical structure to cause an overlapping of "intellectual space".[13] Conceptual chiasmus utilizes specific linguistic choices, often metaphors, to create a connection between two differing disciplines.[13] By employing a chiastic structure to a single presented concept, rhetors encourage one area of thought to consider an opposing area's perspective.

Effectiveness of Chiasmus[edit]

Chiasmus derives its effectiveness from its symmetrical structure. The structural symmetry of the chiasmus imposes the impression upon the reader or listener that the entire argument has been accounted for.[14] In other words, chiasmus creates only two sides of an argument or idea for the listener to consider, and then leads the listener to favor one side of the argument. In former President John F. Kennedy's famous quote, "ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country",[15] the only two questions that the chiastic statement allows for are whether the listener should ask what the country can do for him or her, or ask what he or she can do for the country. The statement also proposes that the latter statement is more favorable. Thus, chiasmus gains its rhetorical efficacy through symmetrical structure causing the belief that all tenants of an argument have been evaluated.

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. ^ Ramirez, Matthew Eric (January 2011). "Descanting on Deformity: The Irregularities in Shakespeare's Large Chiasms". Text and Performance Quarterly 31 (1): 37–49. doi:10.1080/10462937.2010.526240. 
  2. ^ Breck, John (1994). The Shape of Biblical Language: Chiasmus in the Scriptures and Beyond. Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press. ISBN 978-0-8814-1139-3. OCLC 30893460. 
  3. ^ Grothe, Mardy (1999). Never Let a Fool Kiss You Or a Kiss Fool You: Chiasmus and a World of Quotations That Say What They Mean and Mean What They Say. New York: Viking. ISBN 0-670-87827-8. OCLC 40754774. 
  4. ^ a b Milton, John (1998). Flannagan, Roy, ed. The Riverside Milton. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. p. 420. ISBN 978-0-395-80999-0. OCLC 38841712. 
  5. ^ Eriksen, Roy T. (2001). The Building in the Text: Alberti to Shakespeare and Milton. University Park, Pennsylvania: Penn State University Press. p. 141. ISBN 0271020229. OCLC 42726253. 
  6. ^ Charles Dickens (1839). "Chapter 47: Fatal Consequences". Oliver Twist. 
  7. ^ "Jules Renard Quotes". BrainyQuote. Retrieved January 18, 2015. 
  8. ^ "Theodore Roosevelt > Quotes > Quotable Quote". goodreads. Retrieved January 18, 2015. 
  9. ^ "New! Super King!". The Day (New London, Connecticut). March 28, 1967. p. 24. Retrieved January 18, 2015. 
  10. ^ Jimmy Carter Farewell Address
  11. ^ Judith Viorst; Shelly Markham (1993). Judith Viorst's Love and Shrimp. Samuel French, Inc.,. p. 26. ISBN 9780573694028. Retrieved January 18, 2015. 
  12. ^ Skellon, Nick (2014). "Chiasmus - examples & definition". Speak Like A Pro. Retrieved January 18, 2015. 
  13. ^ a b Ceccarelli, Leah (2001). Shaping Science with Rhetoric: The Cases of Dobzhansky, Schrödinger, and Wilson. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press. p. 5. ISBN 0226099067. OCLC 45276826. 
  14. ^ Lissner, Patricia (2007). Chi-thinking: Chiasmus and Cognition. University of Maryland. p. 217. Retrieved November 5, 2014. 
  15. ^ Kennedy, John. "Inaugural Address". American Rhetoric. American Rhetoric. Retrieved November 5, 2014.