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In rhetoric, chiasmus (from the Greek: χιάζω, chiázō, "to shape like the letter Χ") is the figure of speech in which two or more clauses are related to each other through a reversal of structures in order to make a larger point; that is, the clauses display inverted parallelism. Chiasmus was particularly popular both in Greek and in Latin literature, where it was used to articulate balance or order within a text. As a popular example, the Greek and Hebrew texts of the Bible also contain many long and complex chiasmi. It is also used various times in the Book of Mormon.

Today, chiasmus is applied fairly broadly to any "criss-cross" structure, although in classical rhetoric it was distinguished from other similar devices, such as the antimetabole. In its classical application, chiasmus would have been used for structures that do not repeat the same words and phrases, but invert a sentence's grammatical structure or ideas. The concept of chiasmus on a higher level, applied to motifs, turns of phrase, or whole passages, is called chiastic structure.

The elements of a simple chiasmus are often labelled in the form A B B A, where the letters correspond to grammar, words, or meaning.


In inverted meaning

But O, what damned minutes tells he o'er
Who dotes, yet doubts; suspects, yet strongly loves.
Shakespeare, Othello 3.3

"Dotes" and "strongly loves" share the same meaning and bracket "doubts" and "suspects."

In inverted grammar

A reversed order of the grammar in two or more clauses in a sentence will yield a chiasmus.

Consider the example of a parallel sentence:

  • ”He knowingly led and we blindly followed

Inverting into chiasmus:

  • "He knowingly led and we followed blindly"

Other examples:

  • "By day the frolic, and the dance by night". Samuel Johnson The Vanity of Human Wishes.
  • "His time a moment, and a point his space." Alexander Pope Essay on Man, Epistle I.
  • "Swift as an arrow flying, fleeing like a hare afraid"

The clause above follows the form of adjective, simile, participle, participle, simile, adjective (A B C C B A). In parallel form:

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