Writing

Writing 101: What Is Chiasmus? Learn About the Rhetorical Device with Examples

Written by MasterClass

May 20, 2019 • 3 min read

Any great piece of writing begins with substantive ideas, but true masters of language go beyond that. To enhance both written and spoken text, authors often use rhetorical devices to phrase their ideas as artfully and cleverly as possible. One particularly advanced rhetorical device is a chiasmus.

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What Is Chiasmus?

A chiasmus is a two-part sentence or phrase, where the second part is a mirror image of the first. This does not mean that the second part mirrors the same exact words that appear in the first part—that is a different rhetorical device called antimetabole—but rather that concepts and parts of speech are mirrored.

The word chiasmus derives from the Greek word for “crossing” or “X-shaped.”

One famous example of chiasmus comes from Samuel Johnson’s 1794 poem “The Vanity of Human Wishes.” It reads: “By day the frolic, and the dance by night.

  • The first half of the sentence is “by day the frolic.” It starts with a time of day, followed by an event.
  • The second half of the sentence is “and the dance by night.” This half begins with an event and is followed by a time of day.
  • As such, the second half of the sentence is a conceptual mirror image of the first half. Exact words are not repeated, but concepts are.

How Is Chiasmus Used in Writing?

Chiasmus appears in all forms of writing, from novels to speeches to song lyrics to theatrical scenes. It is most associated with poetry, however. This stands to reason, as poetry is rooted in facile manipulation of language.

Dramatic plays written in poetic verse, such as those by William Shakespeare, often provide fertile ground for chiasmus. This famous line from Othello, spoken by the villainous Iago, exemplifies chiasmus: “Who dotes, yet doubts, suspects, yet strongly loves.

  • “Dotes” and “loves” are highly similar words, forming the bookends of the phrase.
  • “Doubts” and “suspects” are highly similar words, forming the middle of the phrase.

What Is the Purpose Of Chiasmus in Literature?

Like many other rhetorical devices, the purpose of chiasmus is partially cosmetic. It doesn’t alter the content of what’s said; it merely presents that content in a more stylistic package. This is not to say that stylish text is shallow text. To the contrary, stylish text can be particularly efficacious because it’s more likely to linger in a reader’s memory, whereas a line of standard-issue prose can be forgotten within minutes.

What Is the Difference Between Chiasmus and Antimetabole?

Chiasmus and antimetabole are very similar rhetorical devices, but the two words are not synonyms. Antimetabole by definition features the reuse of words in the first and second halves of a sentence. Chiasmus does not feature repeating words; rather it involves two phrases, where the second phrase is merely a conceptual inversion of the first one.

  • Antimetabole. “Fair is foul and foul is fair.” This comes from William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The words “foul” and “fair” are repeated an inverted in an ABBA pattern. In a sense, it’s a palindrome of words.
  • Chiasmus. “Who dotes, yet doubts—suspects, yet soundly loves!” This comes from Shakespeare’s Othello. No words are repeated here (apart from “yet”), but there is a conceptual inversion of words. The positive words (“dotes,” “loves”) appear first and last. The negative words (“doubts,” “suspects”) appear in the middle. Once again, Shakespeare has crafted an ABBA structure, but here he simply uses words with similar meaning rather than repeating the same exact word.

8 Examples of Chiasmus in Literature

Chiasmus manifests in all types of written and spoken text. Serious texts concerning politics and policy often use chiasmus:

  • “If black men have no rights in the eyes of the white men, of course, the whites can have none in the eyes of the blacks.” (Frederick Douglass)
  • “The art of progress is to preserve order amid change and to preserve change amid order.” (Alfred North Whitehead)
  • “Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate.” (John F. Kennedy)

Chiasmus is, above all else, famous for its use in poetic verse:

  • “Love without end, and without measure Grace.” (John Milton, Paradise Lost)
  • “And these tend inward to me, and I tend outward to them.” (Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”)
  • “Pleasure's a sin, and sometimes sin's a pleasure.” (Lord Byron, “Don Juan”)
  • “Despised, if ugly; if she's fair, betrayed.” (Mary Leapor, “Essay on Woman”)
  • ““His time a moment, and a point his space.” (Alexander Pope, “Essay on Man”)

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