Chiasmus in Literature

Last Updated: April 4, 2024

Chiasmus in Literature

Chiasmus is a rhetorical device used most commonly in literature in which two or more clauses are balanced against each other by the reversal of their structures in order to produce an artistic effect. After all, emotional aesthetic resonances are the main aim of these literary tools.

A popular example of a chiasmus is the popular almost-cliched saying “Never let a fool kiss you or a kiss fool you.” If you try to look at that sentence closely, you will notice that the second half of it is just an inverted form of the first half, both grammatically and logically. This shows us that chiasmus, in its simplest sense, refers to crisscross structures, and as weird as that concept may sound, it’s actually pretty common these days.

Chiasmus comes from the Greek term meaning “diagonal arrangement.” It is used to describe two successive clauses or sentences where the keywords or phrases are repeated in both clauses, but in reverse order. Because of this system, chiasmus is sometimes known as a crisis-figure of speech.

Another popular example of chiasmus is the phrase “When the going gets tough, the tough gets going!” The words going and tough are reversed in successive clauses, while the other words (when, the, and gets) bind them together and often include straightforward repetition (the, get/gets). The general pattern will tell us when your first clause contains two words A and B, then the second clause will contain the same words but in reverse order.

Symmetry is key to chiasmus. However, the repeated phrases don’t necessarily need to be symmetrical. Which means that a latter phrase might be a much longer elaboration of the preceding phrase which it echoes.

Examples of Chiasmus in Literature

Chiasmus is not as popular a figure of speech as your superstars simile and metaphor because it tends to create a language that feels too formal or even stilted. Even so, it does appear on your occasional prose and poetry to produce a lyrical and balanced effect. In fact, Chiasmus was very important in some ancient texts since it is entrusted with the responsibility of striking balance in a work of literature.

Othello by William Shakespeare

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

Essay on Man by Alexander Pope

“His time a moment, and a point his space.”

Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful? by Oscar Hammerstein

“Do I love you because you’re beautiful?
Or are you beautiful because I love you?”

Paradise Lost by John Milton

“. . .in his face
Divine compassion visibly appeared,
Love without end, and without measure Grace. . .”

Quote by Judith Viorst

“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.”

Quote by John Marshall

“In the blue grass region,
A paradox was born:
The corn was full of kernels
And the colonels full of corn.”

Quote by Alfred P. Solan

“Some have an idea that the reason we in this country discard things so readily is because we have so much. The facts are exactly opposite—the reason we have so much is simply because we discard things so readily.”

Quote by Voltaire

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

Quote by Thomas Szaz

“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.”

Quote by Peter de Vries

“The value of marriage is not that adults produce children, but that children produce adults.”

Quote by Alfred North Whitehead

“The art of progress is to preserve order amid change, and to preserve change amid order.”

Quote by Jacquelyn Small

“Don’t sweat the petty things, and don’t pet the sweaty things.”

Quote by Judy Joice

“This isn’t a bar for writers with a drinking problem; it’s for drinkers with a writing problem.”

Quote by Jim Calhoun

“They don’t care about how much you know until they know how much you care.”

Hamlet by William Shakespeare

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


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

MacBeth by William Shakespeare

“Foul is fair and fair is foul.”

John F. Kennedy in His Inaugural Address

“Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate.”

Song of Myself by Walt Whitman

“The city sleeps and the country sleeps,
The living sleep for their time, the dead sleep for their time,
The old husband sleeps by his wife and the young husband sleeps by his wife;
And these tend inward to me, and I tend outward to them.”

He Lit a Fire with Icicles by Kay Ryan

“This was the work
of St. Sebolt, one
of his miracles:
He lit a fire with
icicles. He srruck
them like a steel
to flint, did St.
Sebolt . . .”

Chiasmus in Literature Examples & Templates

Chiasmus Example

Chiasmus Example Quote

Understanding the Meaning of Chiasmus

Chiasmus Examples

Chiasmus Quote Example

Chiasmus Examples and Definition

Identifying the Chiasmus in Psalm 51:2

Chiasmus in a Speech

Chiasmus Examples and Purpose

Chiasmus in Bible Verses

Chiasmus Example by John Kennedy

Chiasmus Example from Literature

Chiasmus Meaning and Example

Examples of Chiasmus from Greek Sages

The use of chiasmus as a rhetorical device date back to the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations. Its traces have been found in the ancient texts of Sanskrit and also in ancient Chinese writing. However, the Greeks, unsurprisingly, have developed an unmatched inclination to this specific literary device. They’ve made it a point to make it an essential part of their oration. Here are a few exemplary examples.

Example #1: Aeschylus, 5th Century BC

“It is not the oath that makes us believe the man, but the man the oath.”

Example #2: Bias, 6th Century BC 

“Love as if you would one day hate, and hate as if you would one day love.”

Example #3: Socrates, 5th Century BC

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

Chiasmus in Literature Examples for Middle School

  1. “Bad men live that they may eat and drink, whereas good men eat and drink that they may live.” – Socrates
    Highlighting the contrast between living for pleasure versus living for purpose.
  2. “He who fails to plan, plans to fail.” – Unknown
    A simple, yet profound statement on the importance of planning ahead.
  3. “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” – Joseph Kennedy
    Emphasizing resilience and action in the face of adversity.
  4. “Never let a Fool Kiss You or a Kiss Fool You.” – Mardy Grothe
    Playing with the words “kiss” and “fool” to caution against deception in romance.
  5. “You can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy.” – Unknown
    Reflecting on how one’s origins remain a part of their identity, regardless of where they go.

Chiasmus in Literature Examples for Students

  1. “Love as if you would one day hate, and hate as if you would one day love.” – Bias of Priene
    This encourages a balance of emotions, suggesting that feelings can change over time.
  2. “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” – Benjamin Franklin
    Stresses the importance of preparation for success.
  3. “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” – John F. Kennedy
    A call to service and personal contribution to the greater good.
  4. “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog.” – Mark Twain
    Emphasizes courage and perseverance over physical attributes.
  5. “To stop too fearful, and too faint to go.” – Oliver Goldsmith
    Captures the dilemma of being caught between fear and ambition.

Chiasmus in Literature Examples for High School

  1. “What is better than wisdom? Woman. And what is better than a good woman? Nothing.” – Geoffrey Chaucer
    A playful yet profound reflection on the value of women and wisdom.
  2. “Not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers.” – Harry S. Truman
    Highlights the importance of reading for leadership.
  3. “In the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.” – Abraham Lincoln
    Encourages making the most out of life, not just living a long time.
  4. “The art of love is largely the art of persistence.” – Albert Ellis
    Suggests that love requires continuous effort and endurance.
  5. “You have to be odd to be number one.” – Dr. Seuss
    Celebrates uniqueness and the importance of standing out to be the best.

Chiasmus in Literature Examples for General Readers

  1. “Pleasure’s a sin, and sometimes sin’s a pleasure.” – Lord Byron
    Reflects on the complex relationship between morality and enjoyment.
  2. “It’s not how much we give but how much love we put into giving.” – Mother Teresa
    Highlights the importance of intent over the magnitude of one’s actions.
  3. “Many are called, but few are chosen.” – Matthew 22:14
    Suggests that while opportunities may be presented to many, only a select few will make the most of them.
  4. “Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate.” – John F. Kennedy
    Advocates for the strength and courage in diplomacy.
  5. “Money is not the root of all evil; the lack of money is the root of all evil.” – Mark Twain
    A twist on a common saying, challenging the conventional wisdom about money and morality.

Why Do Writers Use Chiasmus?

That’s the big question, isn’t it? It’s the mystery we all want the answers to, so bad that we’ve arrived at this article in our attempt to know the answer. First of all, you must understand that writers don’t simply use chiasmus—or any other literary device, for that matter—because they feel like it or because they need to add a little flair to their writing.

No, they use chiasmus to present and elaborate upon an idea, while persuading and moving an audience and simultaneously lending a harmonious quality to writing through an organized, although not always exact, repetition. That need gave birth to chiasmus.

Chiasmus Can Present, then Deepen, an Idea

When chiasmus involves repeated concepts rather than simply repeated words, the structure can allow an idea to be deepened or expanded in the latter clauses. Take the following sentence as an example:

“All the schoolchildren were cruel. Killing ants, pinching legs, and stomping on flowers was the favorite habits of the children.”

As you can see, the first half of the sentence uses the adjective “cruel,” an abstract concept, one that can be easily misinterpreted or even exaggerated. However, the second half of it elaborates on that assumed cruelty by describing the actions of the children that can make them deserving of the adjective used to describe them.

The second half of the sentence gave valuable and concrete detail and imagery. You are no longer dubious of the ability of mere schoolchildren to be cruel, because you have read yourself what they are capable of doing, and upon reading it, the very adjective used popped into your head as the perfect summation of what those kids are. Cruel.

This is the aim of writers when they make use of chiasmus. They seek to make their audience understand by telling them what is happening and letting them decide for themselves what to make out of that situation. This has been successfully achieved by the sentence even though if you’ve observed, the halves aren’t of symmetrical length since the second half is much longer than the first.

Chiasmus Is a Persuasive, Dynamic Tool of Rhetoric

Like all figures of speech based on repetition, chiasmus can also be a tool to craft persuasive rhetoric. It can be used to reiterate concepts, to summarize a complex idea to a manageable size, and to draw connections between contrasting concepts. Although it’s not very common, chiasmus appears in many forms, from axioms to antimetabole. (But these two are topics for a different day.) The inverted grammar that chiasmus boasts of can bring a sense of gravity to a sentence.

Understanding Chiasmus

Chiasmus can be pretty difficult to grasp at first, especially since we are so unfamiliar with it. Not its examples, though, since we’ve read Shakespeare and the guy’s great at it, but the technicalities of the concept is foreign to us. So here’s a closer look at the most important elements of chiasmus.

  1. The repeated concepts in chiasmus can be contrasting. Although many of the examples of chiasmus use synonymous concepts, it can also involve opposite or contrasting concepts.
  2. Chiasmus depends on inverted word order. One reason that chiasmus is rare is that it depends on inverting the order of related concepts. So, although it’s common to come across repeated concepts and syntax in a sentence, these examples may not be chiasmus.
  3. If concepts aren’t related, it’s not chiasmus. This is perhaps the most important attribute that we need to look for when we encounter a chiasmus. It’s not chiasmus unless the concepts involved in the statement are somehow related. Of course, this isn’t always easy to determine since there are no rigid rules about what makes two things related, however, keep a sharp eye on the chiasmus’s main attribute. A cup of coffee can never be compared with a lover, even if you can’t live without both since a human being isn’t related to a beverage.

Using Chiasmus for Your Own Speeches

Although our examples of the use of chiasmus only include great men and writers, you mustn’t consider it beyond your abilities to create your own chiasmus for your speeches. Here are a few guidelines to help you along:

  1. Use with moderation. Chiasmus, like all rhetorical devices, is best when used in moderation. You don’t want to create a speech filled with almost-contradicting statements. Instead of making your audience feel something, you may just confuse them with your complexity. If you use chiasmus over and over, you will start diminishing, or worse, losing, the impact. Your speech will sound exactly like an extensive joke instead. One or two chiasmus in every speech is perhaps enough.
  2. Rethink relationships. Since chiasmus is a reversion of two personas who has a distinct connection with each other, make sure that the one you make contains this characteristic. For example, you can create a chiasmus on the relationship between children and parents, audience and speaker, reader and writer. But make sure that the personas you use actually have a connection that your audience will easily identify.
  3. Question causation. Many chiastic phrases show a causation between entities. This can be a helpful starting point for you if you are still trying out words and mixing relationships to find your own beat. For example, when you say that “I give up when all is lost, but all is lost only when I give up,” you are questioning whether failure causes despair, or despair causes failure. Either way, using a chiasmus to express your wonderment and to seek answers not only makes the statement more poetic, but it also demands its audience to ask the same.
  4. Riff off chiasmus examples. If you’ve never tried to make a chiasmus on your own before, a good place to start is by taking a known chiasmus and using it as a template into which you can substitute one or both key repeated words. No, you are not plagiarizing, you are simply taking out inspiration from the expert words of others. Take the immortal words of Cicero as an example. His original statement says that “One should eat to live, not live to eat.” However, this line has been altered many times. Other people now say that “One should work to live, not live to work.” Can you see the difference?

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