Saturday, May 28, 2016

Prompt # 257 – Chiasmus


I thought this week that it would be interesting to explore something we don't hear about often: chiasmus. Chiasmus is a verbal pattern in which the second half of an expression is balanced against the first with the parts reversed (it is similar to a literary device called antimetabole).

Adjective: chiastic.
Plural: chiasmus or chiasmi.

Chiasmus is a Greek term that means “diagonal arrangement.” It is used to describe two successive clauses or sentences where the key words or phrases are repeated in both clauses, but in reverse order. For this reason, chiasmus is sometimes known as a criss-cross figure of speech.

As a figure of speech, chiasmus is characterized by words, grammatical constructions, or concepts that are repeated in reverse order (in either the same or in modified form). In other words, the clauses display what may be called inverted parallelism.

A well-known example is:

    When the going gets tough, the tough get going!

Typically when the first clause contains two words or two groups of words, (A and B), then the second clause contains the same words or groups, but in reverse order:

    1.  … A… B…
    2.  … B… A…

Chiasmus is also used in music. The first movement of Mozart’s “40th Symphony” is a great example in which the musical phrase is inverted and then flipped back.

Another musical example appears in the lyrics of Crosby, Stills, and Nash’s “Love the One You’re With.”
 “And if you can’t be with the one you love, honey, love the one you’re with.”

The Bible also offers examples of chiasmus. For example, in Isaiah, one chiasmus appears within another larger chiasmus, thus creating a kind of double chiasmus.
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (NIV) 

In poetry, chiasmus may serve a purpose similar to caesura (a pause in the poem); chiasmus can add to the rhythmical quality of a poem and is typically used to add emphasis.


1. Start by reading the examples below.

2. If you’ve never tried to craft chiasmus before, a good place to start is taking a known chiasmus and using it as a template into which you can substitute one or both key repeated words.

3. Next, try writing some chiasmus examples of your own.

4. Choose one of your own examples and think about how it might fit into a poem. You might even use it as the title for your poem (and repeat the chiasmus in the title somewhere within the poem).

5. As you write, work around the one chiasmus you’ve chosen. Don’t try to include more than one in your poem. With that in mind, make the example you create a really good one.

6. A kind of chiasmus is sometimes achieved by a sudden change from the active voice to the passive or vice versa, for example:

“The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the taker and the chief mourner, Scrooge signed it.” (Dickens)


1. As you work on this chiasmus challenge remember:
Quitters never win and winners never quit!


1. “It is not the oath that makes us believe the man, but the man the oath.” (Aeschylus)

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

3.  “I wasted time, and now time doth waste me.” (William Shakespeare, “Richard II”)

4. “Foul is fair and fair is foul.” (Shakespeare, “MacBeth”)

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

6. “His jokes were sermons, and his sermons jokes.” (Lord Byron)

7. “All for one, and one for all.” (The motto of Alexandre Dumas’ Three Musketeers)

8. “I meant what I said and I said what I meant.” (Horton the Elephant’s, Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hatches the Egg)

9. “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”(President John F. Kennedy)

10. “Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate.” (President John F. Kennedy)

NOTE: My thanks to Michael T. Young for inspiring this prompt with his Facebook post on the same subject. You've met Michael here on the blog, and I hope you'll visit him online.


  1. This is wonderful! Not so easy, but a great challenge! Thanks!

  2. Amita Jayaraman (Mumbai)June 7, 2016 at 10:12 AM

    I never heard this word before, but I'm very happy to encounter it here on your blog. Thank you for these instructional and inspiring posts.

    1. Thank you, Amita! Your comments are always much appreciated.

  3. This is great, Adele! Something I knew about but didn't know the name! Thanks!

    1. Thanks, Sandy! So glad to hear that you enjoyed the post.