Rhetorical Tricks Every Writer Should Know: Chiasmus


I haven’t received it yet, but I’m looking forward to reading Mark Forsyth’s book, The Elements of Eloquence: How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase. I’ve spent some time on his excellent blog, The Inky Fool, and I enjoy not only what he writes, but, not surprisingly, how he writes.

The book discusses rhetorical devices and figures of speech that gifted writers employ in their prose. One of those devices is chiasmus — the balancing of clauses or phrases that have opposing structures. It doesn’t much matter that you know the term chiasmus, but if you are a writer, you should know how to use it. Chiasmus has been likened to verbal judo. “By keeping the phrase but inverting its meaning we use our opponent’s own power to overcome him, just as a judo expert does.”¹

Some well known examples include:

  • “But many that are first shall be last and the last shall be first.” -Jesus
  • “You can take the girl out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the girl.”
  • “Failing to plan is preparing to fail.” -John Wooden

The graphic below includes more well and lesser-known examples of chiasmus.



¹Richard A. Lanham, Analyzing Prose, 2nd ed. Continuum, 2003

About the Author

Brian WaskoBrian is the founder and president of WriteAtHome.com. One of his passions is to teach young people how to write better.View all posts by Brian Wasko

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