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For application of chiasmus on larger scale structure, see Chiastic structure.
Chiasmus represented as an "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.[citation needed]

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.[citation needed] 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

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".[3] Conceptual chiasmus utilizes specific linguistic choices, often metaphors, to create a connection between two differing disciplines.[3] 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.[4] 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",[5] 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 tenets of an argument have been evaluated.

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

  • Chiasmus, Rhetorical Figures, by Gideon O. Burton (Professor of Rhetoric and Composition, BYU), at


  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. ^ 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. 
  4. ^ Lissner, Patricia (2007). Chi-thinking: Chiasmus and Cognition (PDF). University of Maryland. p. 217. Retrieved November 5, 2014. 
  5. ^ Kennedy, John. "Inaugural Address". American Rhetoric. American Rhetoric. Retrieved November 5, 2014.