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Chiasmus and Antimetabole

What is chiasmus, or antimetabole for that matter? These words are not readily recognizable, though you're about to learn how common the techniques they stand for are. You may be surprised to realize that you've seen them before -- you just didn't relate the concepts to the grammar they're attributed to.

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  Jeffrey Powell  —  Grammar Tips
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Chiasmus (pronounced ki-AZ-muss) is an ancient literary device, as old as ancient Greek verse and Hebrew scripture, which when used appropriately can be an effective way to transform your writing. It is basically, a rhetorical figure of speech (language that intends to effect its audience in some way) represented as a two-part sentence or phrase, where the second part is a reversal of the first. For those familiar with the terms, perhaps it is helpful to know it is a form of a form of antithesis: specifically, reverse parallelism (AKA syntactical inversion) and that it goes hand-in-hand with juxtaposition. Also, all chiasmus utilizes anadiplosis to some degree (the repeating of a word, phrase, or structural syntax used at [or near] the end of clause, back at [or near] the beginning of a subsequent clause). But to simplify comprehension, chiasmus is a mirroring of related concepts by repeating elements of a sentence in order to emphasize meaning in a particular pair of phrases - thus there must be an element of symmetry despite the phrases potentially being contrasting . This mirrored structure resembles an 'X,' when diagrammed, and 'chi' is the Greek letter, x. Chiasm, translated in Latin from Greek, means crossing or diagonal arrangement. Relatedly, medical folks will no-doubt know of the optic chiasm, -the part of the brain in which the optic nerves partially cross- and essentially in grammar, chiasmus is the crossing of phrase structures to make a point.

Perhaps some examples will better illustrate the concept.


● "Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country." - John F. Kennedy

● "Life imitates art far more than art imitates life. - Oscar Wilde

● "The truth is not always beautiful, nor beautiful words the truth." - Lao Tzu

● It's hard to save time, but to waste it is easy.

The 4th example may not appear to belong in the same company as the others but it is important to note that chiasmus does not require using the same words in both phrases to be chiastic.


● "I'd rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints." - Billy Joel

● "Genuine righteousness leads to life, but the pursuit of evil brings death." - Proverbs 11:19

Dedication must be your tunnel to success: achievement occurs through commitment

● I'll have some "champagne for my real friends, real pain for my sham friends." - 19th century toast

As shown chiasmus can also use synonyms (particularly ex. 7) or related language -instead of the same wording- as long as the concept is properly inverted. The above chiasmus examples indicate how the grammatical structures or ideas are flip-flopped, without word repetition, to the preservation of a main idea. The last one being quite witty and amusing.


This leads me to the other term in this article: antimetabole (an-tee-meh-TA-bo-lee). There is a lively debate in scholarly circles that it is, in fact, a form of chiasmus (as there's no denying their similarity) but the consensus is that it is a subtype of the former. Actually, the first 3 (initial) examples - given above - are also antimetabole and demonstrate there is a common overlap. Antimetabole is easy to spot, practically universal in most languages, and can be applied in a myriad of contexts. Antimetabole, from the Greek for "turning about in the opposite direction," is the reversal of the exact same wording in successive clauses. A statement qualifies as antimetabole if the wording is the same or similar (as grammar rules apply) in the respective phrases to persuasive effect.


● "Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted." - Albert Einstein

● “Mankind must put an end to war – or war will put an end to mankind.” - speech made by JFK

● "It is better to deserve honors and not have them than to have them and not deserve them." - Mark Twain

● "I'm not a writer with a drinking problem; I'm a drinker with a writing problem." - Dorothy Parker

● I have not the mind of many men, but l'm a man of many minds.

Obviously, the reusing of words in instances of antimetabole makes the text stand out more, and is an enticing technique that can leave a solid impression on the reader. It can also dramatically enhance a lecture or speech to stimulate the listeners' capacity to remember what they heard.

The following is another example of chiasmus in the form of antimetabole.:

“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

- Literary instances such as this are not few and far between and serve to illustrate that the two devices are not so distinct at times. Indeed the rule of thumb is that: all antimetabole is chiasmus, but not all chiasmus is antimetabole....(humorously --the preceding sentence also happens to be a marked example of antimetabole!)

Conclusion: Is it Chiasmus or Antimetabole?

Chiasmus and antimetabole are often used interchangeably and are easily confused with one another. But, there is a difference.

Chiasmus is the repetition of similar concepts in similar structures (and does not mandate the repetition of the same exact words).
Antimetabole is, exclusively, the repetition of words or phrases in an A B - B A structure.

Chiasmus is not as obvious as antimetabole and can therefore be harder to spot and break down, however with this device, there is much more flexibility and creativity at one's disposal. Chiasmus looks like antimetabole except for the fact that different words are used to express the same, similar, or opposing concepts. It allows for more complex phrases and is a powerful poetic and rhetorical tool for engaging an audience (whether reading or speaking) and establishing impactful points. It commonly takes the form of well-known axioms and is found in the rousing speeches typical of the late Reverend King and President Kennedy.
e.g. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” - Dr Martin Luther King

While antimetabole is more geared towards a single, cogent, and identifiable statement that can allow writers or speakers to build charisma and illuminate irony, paradoxical ideas, or contradicting arguments in a way that makes the concepts streamlined, memorable, and thought-provoking. It can usually be more evident and carry more significance when read on the printed page.
e.g. "As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain, and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality." - Albert Einstein

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1 Comment
  • Philalex
    I am surprised that Martin Luther King’s sentence referred to in the article is regarded as an instance of chiasmus.
    LikeReply1 month ago


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