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What Are the Different Uses for Chiasmus?

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  • Written By: Megan Shoop
  • Edited By: Michelle Arevalo
  • Images By: Georgios Kollidas, Smithsonian Institution, Manaemedia
  • Last Modified Date: 24 November 2016
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Chiasmus is the literary practice of repeating a phrase or grammatical pattern in a single sentence. Writers and poets, such as Shakespeare and Alexander Pope, often use this device to make a point, to emphasize meaning or simply to make their work sound more lyrical. In large works of literature, authors occasionally use it to frame themes and meanings in the entire work. This referred to as using a chiastic structure. Both sentence-based chiasmus and chiastic structure are frequently used in the Bible.

Most instances of chiasmus contain two important concepts that relate but are inverted or opposite one another. For instance, President John F. Kennedy’s famous catch-phrase “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,” is chiastic. The first concept, concept A, is the inverse of the second concept, concept B. The structure here involves two clauses joined by a conjunction that use the same words to convey two opposite meanings. This is one way to use chiasmus to make a point, especially in speeches.

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The Bible often uses chiasmus to place particular emphasis on lessons. In Matthew 19:30, Jesus explains what life in the kingdom of Heaven will be like by saying: “But many that are first shall be last and the last shall be first.” He uses the same words, but reverses them to change the meaning. The chiastic structure of the above sentence is ABBA because references to “the first” come first, making them A. The reference to “the last” comes second, making it B. Then Jesus uses the B phrase again, followed by the A phrase.

Entire sections of poetry may be chiastic, repeating many phrases twice. Often, poets use this device in longer works by creating a list of phrases, then repeating the center phrase, and continuing the pattern. For instance, the order of the phrases in a poem might read ABCDEEDCBA when labeled. Often, the two center phrases will have opposite meanings, causing the last half of the poem to turn and disprove the phrases in the first half.

Many uses of chiasmus also repeat grammar devices, such as gerunds or participles, to give the language a lilting quality. The phrase “Fleeing quickly as a deer and flying swiftly as a falcon” demonstrates chiasmus in grammatical structure. “Fleeing” and “flying” repeat the same type of verb, while “quickly” and “swiftly” are adverbs that also reflect the same structure. “Deer” and “falcon” also demonstrate this device because they’re both animal names. The structure of the above example would be ABCABC.

When spoken aloud, chiastic phrases like this often sound poetic and can be committed to memory easily. Many early histories and storytelling traditions used song, rhyme, and chiastic structure to aid memorization. Today, many famous quotes, such as the example from President Kennedy’s speech, contain chiasmus.

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