What is a Chiasmus

What is a Chiasmus

Chiasmus is a rhetorical device where the second half of an expression is balanced against the first with the parts reversed, in order to make a larger point.  This means that the second half of a clause or sentence is an inverted form of the first half both grammatically and logically. To understand chiasmus let us look at an example.

“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country” – John F. Kennedy

The first part of the above sentence is grammatically and logically reversed in the second part by changing the positions of you and your country.

The same words do not have to be repeated in chiasmus. It is the meaning that has to be reversed. For example,

“But O, what damned minutes tells he o’er
Who dotes, yet doubts; suspects, yet strongly loves.” 

Here “dotes” and “strongly loves” have similar meanings, and “doubts” and “suspects” have a similar meaning. Therefore, there is a reversal of meaning which results in chiasmus.

The use of the chiasmus dates back to the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations. This rhetoric device is specially used by orators to create a special artistic effect in order to emphasize their points. Its effectiveness is mainly due to its symmetrical structure. Chiasmus creates to sides of arguments or ideas for the readers or listeners to consider. It also leads the audience to favor one side.What is a Chiasmus

Examples of Chiasmus

“Bad men live that they may eat and drink, whereas good men eat and drink that they may live.” – Socrates

“Mankind must put an end to war, or war will put an end to mankind.” – John F. Kennedy

“We don’t mistrust each other because we’re armed; we’re armed because we mistrust each other.” – Ronald Reagan

“People the world over have always been more impressed by the power of our example than by the example of our power.” – Bill Clinton

“For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” – Matthew 23:12 …

You can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy.

Quitters never win and winners never quit.

Examples of Chiasmus in Literature

Shakespeare used the rhetorical device of chiasmus in many of his plays. Given below are some examples from Shakespearean plays.

I wasted time,
and now time doth waste me.

(Richard II)

“Suit the action to the word, the word to the action.”


“For ’tis a question left us yet to prove, whether love lead to fortune, or else fortune love.”


Foul is fair and fair is foul.” 


“The instinct of a man is
to pursue everything that flies from him, and
to fly from all that pursues him.”  – Voltaire

“When religion was strong and science weak, men
mistook magic for medicine;
Now, when science is strong and religion weak, men
mistake medicine for magic.”-  Thomas Szaz

All for one, and one for all. – Alexandre Dumas (the motto of the three musketeers)

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