Chiasm in English

From: Jonathan Robie (
Date: Fri Nov 06 1998 - 18:07:16 EST

Charles Peebles wrote:
> This chiasm probably serves no purpose
> other than to give a pleasing structure to the enumeration of the
> gifts. Perhaps it even served as a mnemonic device for those who
> might have cared to memorize the list.

Precisely! Some people treat chiasm in an almost mystical manner, but we
use chiasm in English, too, even in rather ordinary speech. In "A Handbook
of Rhetorical Devices" (,
Robert Harris points out

"Chiasmus may be useful for those sentences in which you want balance, but
which cannot be paralleled effectively, either because they are too short,
or because the emphasis is placed on the wrong words. And sometimes a
chiastic structure will just seem to "work" when a parallel one will not."

Several of the examples he gives are rather mundane:

"On the way to school, my car ran out of gas; then it had a flat on the way
"Sitting together at lunch, the kids talked incessantly; but they said
nothing at all sitting in the dentist's office."
"The computer mainframe is now on sale; available also at a discount is the
peripheral equipment."

Of course, it can also be used with strong rhetorical force, e.g.:

"If you come to them, they are not asleep; if you ask and inquire of them,
they do not withdraw themselves; they do not chide if you make mistakes;
they do not laugh at you if you are ignorant." --Richard de Bury

I'll list a few more examples I found on the web together with the sources
where I found them...

In his Essay on Criticism (1711), Pope looks for a poet, "Though learned,
well-bred; and though well-bred, sincere" Another example is the chant of
the witches in Shakespeare's Macbeth (1605-06): "Fair is foul, and foul is

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

It is boring to eat; to sleep is fulfilling.
Hope this is as interesting to you as it was to me. (Hint: that's a chiasm,


Jonathan Robie

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