Background

Here are two famous quotes that you’re probably familiar with. The first is an excerpt from Charles Dickens’ classic novel, A Tale of Two Cities, which begins with the iconic sentence, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” The second quote is from a much more lighthearted book titled Horton Hatches the Egg, written by the popular children’s author Dr. Seuss: “I meant what I said and I said what I meant…an elephant’s faithful, one hundred percent.”

Have you ever questioned why these lines are so catchy, or why they are so beloved by English teachers? After a quick, cursory glance, you might think that these two quotes are similar to each other in that they both make clever use of repetition. Though that is true in a broad sense, upon closer inspection, Dickens and Dr. Seuss don’t use repetition in quite the same way or for the same purpose. 

Explanation

In these quotes from Dickens and Dr. Seuss, the former author uses a technique called parallelism while the latter uses chiasmus. Parallelism is essentially similar or repeating grammatical structures within a clause or sentence, which can also take the form of repeating words or phrases. When Dickens writes, “it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness,” he keeps the part of the sentence that reads “it was the age of…” and just replaces the word “wisdom” with a different noun – “foolishness.” The many examples of parallelism in that first sentence from A Tale of Two Cities serve to tie together all the contrasting descriptions of this time period in an easily memorable way. 

The repetition used in chiasmus is slightly different. For one thing, chiasmus reads more like a tongue twister or a riddle. Furthermore, chiasmus reverses the structure or word order of the second of two parallel clauses or sentences to create a slightly different meaning and put emphasis on the specific words that were reversed. In Dr. Seuss’ case, he reversed the words “meant” and “said” to highlight the relationship between the things someone says and the intention behind those words. 

Parallelism/Chiasmus

Parallelism is a literary technique in which two or more consecutive phrases repeat the same grammatical structure with just a few words changed each time. Note that when you’re using parallelism, the “new” words you put in must be the same part of speech as the original words that are being replaced. For example, take a look at Neil Armstrong’s famous quote: “That’s one step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Both of the phrases here take this structure: “one _______ for _______.” “Giant leap” replaces “step” while “mankind” replaces “man,” and you can see that each noun in the original phrase is substituted with another noun. 

Chiasmus is a literary technique involving two consecutive phrases in which the second phrase’s grammatical structure or word order is reversed. For example, check out President John F. Kennedy’s quote from his address before the United Nations General Assembly: “Mankind must put an end to war, or war will put an end to mankind.” The words “mankind” and “war” have swapped places as well as grammatical functions in the sentence. 

The History

The word “parallelism” obviously derives from “parallel,” which was in turn adapted from the Greek phrase para allelois, meaning “beside one another.” The roots of the word “parallelism” hint at how this rhetorical device involves clauses that are next to each other. 

The word “chiasmus” originated from the Greek kiasmos, which refers to “diagonal arrangement” or an X-shape. In examples of chiasmus, the author usually swaps the places of two words to create an alternate meaning, and kiasmos refers to how this crossover imitates an X-shape.

So What? 

If you’ve ever heard Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have A Dream” speech, there’s no question as to where the title came from. After all, King repeatedly uses the phrase, “I have a dream….” in parallel structures throughout the piece: “I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.”

After examining King’s speech, it’s clear that parallelism provides a rhythmic flow to any piece of text, written or spoken, and makes the content much more memorable because of the mellifluous quality of repetitive structure. Not only does parallelism make a piece of writing easier to remember, but it also makes the information easier to understand, which is especially important when writing a speech that you want to appeal to a broad audience. Chiasmus (though not featured in King’s speech), creates an impact that is very similar to parallelism, but with the added bonus of sounding wittier and putting emphasis on the two words that swap places. Because of these benefits of both parallelism and chiasmus, it’s not only public speakers that use them, but advertisement campaigns as well.

    Learn More

    Learn More

    1. Alice E. M. Underwood. “Parallelism.” Parallelism In Writing | Grammarly Blog, 26 Jan. 2016, https://www.grammarly.com/blog/parallelism/.
    2. Berlin, Adele. The Dynamics of Biblical Parallelism. Indiana University Press, 1992.
    3. Geller, Stephen A. Parallelism in Early Hebrew Poetry. Brill, 1979. brill.com, https://brill.com/view/title/39164.
    4. Nänny, Max. “Chiasmus in Literature: Ornament or Function?” Word & Image, vol. 4, no. 1, Jan. 1988, pp. 51–59. caa.tandfonline.com (Atypon), doi:10.1080/02666286.1988.10436219.
    5. Welch, John W. “Criteria for Identifying and Evaluating the Presence of Chiasmus.” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies (1992-2007), vol. 4, no. 2, 1995, pp. 1–14.

    Think Further

    Think Further

    1. Name one other example of either parallelism or chiasmus from famous literature. (If you can’t think of one, make up an example of either parallelism or chiasmus.)
    2. Parallelism and chiasmus often feature in religious texts. Why do you think that is?
    3. What might be one benefit and one drawback to using more parallelism in your writing?

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