Grammar Gremlins: Two Terms You Probably Don’t Know (I Didn’t)

Diving back into Theodore Bernstein’s bottomless pit of Rhetorical Figures and Faults (in The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage) with the Gremlins, I found myself puzzling over chiasmus, a term I don’t believe I’ve ever heard or seen before. Bernstein defines chiasmus (pronounced kigh-AZ-muss) as “the inversion in the second of two parallel clauses or phrases of the structure of the first.” Of course. But we all know his prime example: “Old King Cole was a merry old soul and a merry old soul was he.”

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Interestingly (and perhaps confusingly) enough, on-line sources (see litcharts.com) class the Old King Cole line as antimetabole (no, I never heard of that one before, either), which may—or may not—be considered a subtype of chiasmus. By this definition, antimetabole repeats words while inverting structure or order; chiasmus inverts structure without repeating words.

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The concepts in the inverted chiasmus structure must be related, if not repeated: litcharts.com offers “It’s hard to make time, but to waste it is easy” and, on a more formal note, “What is stolen without remorse, with guilt must be repaid.” Sounds a bit like Yoda, doesn’t it?

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Antimetabole seems to be the more common, and more recognizable, device. It works well for politicians, as in John F. Kennedy’s “Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate,” and John McCain’s “We were elected to change Washington, and we let Washington change us.”

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What do these mean for writers of commercial genre fiction? Well, anything along the lines of the Old King Cole example (“The cowboy’s horse was a stud, and a stud was the cowboy, too.”) would probably make any good copy editor cringe (ouch!). But the use of antimetabole in the Kennedy and McCain quotes (whether or not either man or his speech writers knew the term) is meaningful and effective, and much less awkward.

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The Gremlins hereby give you permission to forget the terms chiasmus and antimetabole (neither of which, by the way, is recognized by the spell check in Scrivener), but it’s interesting to know that the terms—and the ideas—exist, and might well work, even in fiction. Here are a few more examples, from literarydevices.net.

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“You forget what you want to remember, and you remember what you want to forget.”

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Socrates: “Bad men live that they may eat and drink, whereas good men eat and drink that they may live.”

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Oscar Hammerstein: “Do I love you because you’re beautiful? Or are you beautiful because I love you?” (See? The Gremlins found something for romance writers!)

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Finally, from Judith Viorst’s Love and Shrimp, antimetabole spread over two sentences: “Lust is what makes you keep wanting to do it, even when you have no desire to be with each other. Love is what makes you keep wanting to be with each other, even when you have no desire to do it.”

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