Do you like this quote by comedian Joey Adams? It’s an example of an elegant and clever figure of speech, the chiasmus (pronounced ki-AZ-mus). You might not have heard the word, but you have heard other examples, such as
- “Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate.” (John F. Kennedy)
- “Do I love you because you’re beautiful? Or are you beautiful because I love you?” (Oscar Hammerstein)
- People the world over have always been more impressed by the power of our example than by the example of our power.”
A chiasmus (also called inverted parallelism) inverses the original grammatical structure or idea in a sentence using a particular pattern. First comes an idea or structure in two parts, such as A (Let us never negotiate) and B (out of fear). Then comes the inversion, starting with part of B (but let us never fear) followed by part of A (to negotiate).
This inversion can be shown in a diagram as
A chiasmus can sound formal because its structure is symmetrical. For example, take JFK’s famous “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” Its structure can be shown as
But a chiasmus can also sound informal, as by English comedian Chris Addison who said, “The right to bear arms is slightly less ridiculous than the right to arm bears.”
Using chiasmi in literature goes back thousands of years when it was popular in Greek writing and in the Bible to underscore order. Socrates wrote, “Bad men live that they may eat and drink, whereas good men eat and drink that they may live.” Shakespeare often used chiasmi, such as “Fair is foul and foul is fair” in Macbeth.
Plots can use chiasmi. At the start of A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens has Dr. Manette curse all the members of the Darnay family; later Manette’s son-in-law, Charles Darnay, is sentenced to the guillotine because of Dr. Manette’s curse.
Chiasmi tend to slow down writing because the reader wants time to understand the logic, and then to marvel at its cleverness. Used appropriately, chiasmi can add style to your writing.