Chiasmus is a poetic and rhetorical device in many languages. Chiasmus— originally Greek for “X-shaped” (the Greek letter chi looked like an “X”)—“crosses” the structure of two phrases or sentences, using a distinctive structure in the first, and then reversing it in the second.
Antimetabole refers to using the same words in both phrases or sentences but reversing the order to change the meaning and create rhetorical impact.
We at YourDictionary have gathered together antimetabole and chiasmus examples from the best in literature and oratory to give you a better picture of what chiasmus is all about.
Chiasmus is an ancient literary device, as old as Hebrew scripture and ancient Greek verse. Its use in English literature is often a callback to those ancient origins, but just as often, it’s used as a simple way to add emphasis to a particular pair of phrases.
- “You see things; you say, 'Why?' But I dream things that never were; and I say 'Why not?’” - George Bernard Shaw, Back to Methuselah
- “Divine compassion visibly appeerd [sic] / Love without End, and without measure Grace.” - John Milton, Paradise Lost
- “His time a moment, and a point his space.” - Alexander Pope, “An Essay on Man”
- “By day the frolic, and the dance by night.” - Samuel Johnson, “The Vanity of Human Wishes”
Antimetabole, like chiasmus, is ancient. It’s also universal. The four quotes in this section were written in four different languages, in four different times. They range from the 5th century BC to 2002, and they all still work. That’s how you know it’s an effective literary device.
- “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” - The Bible, Matthew 19:30
- “You must eat to live, not live to eat.” - Attributed to Socrates by Plutarch, "How the Young Man Should Study Poetry"
- "Never let a fool kiss you or a kiss fool you." - Book title (by Mardy Grothe) taken from a quote by Joey Adams
- “The instinct of a man is to pursue everything that flies from him, and to fly from all that pursue him.” - Voltaire, Philosophical Dictionary
Chiasmus is a powerful rhetorical device. Speakers can use the recurring phrases to set a powerful vocal rhythm and highlight important points by juxtaposing contrasting meaning.
- “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” - Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”
- “United there is little we cannot do in a host of cooperative ventures. Divided there is little we can do—for we dare not meet a powerful challenge at odds and split asunder.” - John F. Kennedy, “1961 First Inaugural Address”
- “Those who have been left out, we will try to bring in. Those left behind, we will help to catch up.” - Richard Nixon, “1969 First Inaugural Address”
- “I'd rather die on my feet than live on my knees.” - Attributed to Emiliano Zapata
If anything, antimetabole is more common in oratory than non-antimetabole chiasmus. A repeated phrasal structure isn’t always as obvious in speech as it is on the printed page. Repeating the actual words of a phrase guarantees the audience connects the two elements of chiasmus and understands the contrast.
- “Now, this is not the end. No, it is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” - Winston Churchill, “1941 Mansion House Speech”
- “Just because you’re born in the slum does not mean the slum is born in you.” - Jesse Jackson, “1984 Democratic National Convention Speech”
- “We were elected to change Washington, and we let Washington change us.” - John McCain, “2008 Republican National Convention Speech”
- “We didn't land at Plymouth Rock. The rock landed on us.” - Malcolm X, “1964 Speech at the Audubon Ballroom”
As a form of wordplay, chiasmus is a classic tool of comedy. Comedians have been riffing on sentence structure and word rhythm since the jokes were in cuneiform. Here are four of the best.
- “Champagne for our real friends, and real pain for our sham friends.” - 19th century toast
- “Men always want to be a woman's first love; women want to be a man's last romance." - Oscar Wilde
- “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.” - Randy Hanzlick
- “He knitted a good deal, he would tell you if you asked him, to keep himself from smoking, adding that he also smoked a good deal to keep himself from knitting.” - P.G. Wodehouse, Cocktail Time
Good comedy loves antimetabole. Playing with literal versus figurative meaning, leveraging the creative misuse of homonyms, and generally messing with the rules of language has yielded millennia of great jokes. Check out four right here.
- “The right to bear arms is slightly less ridiculous than the right to arm bears.” - Chris Addison
- “A teacher might say, ‘Incidentally, that’s a chiasmus.’ And the chiasmus might volley back, ‘That’s a teacher, incidentally.’” - L.L. Barkat, “Incidentally, That’s a Chiasmus.”
- “I'm not a writer with a drinking problem, I'm a drinker with a writing problem.” - Dorothy Parker
- “It's not the men in your life that count, it's the life in your men.” - Mae West
Non-antimetabole chiasmus (say that five times fast) is rare in song lyrics, but antimetabole itself abounds. Songwriters love to repeat the rhythms and sounds of phrases to achieve artistic impact.
- “Do I love you because you're beautiful? Or are you beautiful because I love you?” - Oscar Hammerstein, “Cinderella”
- “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.” - Stephen Stills, “Love the One You’re With”
- “Laid back, with my mind on my money and my money on my mind.” - Snoop Dogg, “Gin and Juice”
- “We do what we like and we like what we do.” - Andrew W.K., “Party Hard”
The power of chiasmus is in adding emphasis. That’s why it was originally a rhetorical device, that is, a tool for speaking persuasively. By establishing, then deliberately reversing, a verbal pattern, writers or speakers engage the audience’s attention and make more powerful points. For other linguistic tricks to persuade your friends and foil your foes, check out a rundown of more rhetorical devices right here at YourDictionary.