Article Category: Speechwriting

How to Write Memorable Speech Lines (Chiasmus)

You can’t give the speech of your life until you first give life to your speeches.

One way to breathe life into your speeches is to craft memorable phrases that will linger on the lips of your audience, and a great tool to help you achieve this goal is chiasmus.

In this article, we define what chiasmus is, study several famous (and not-so-famous) chiasmus examples, and give some tips for crafting chiasmus into your own speeches.

Rhetorical Devices Article Series

What is Chiasmus? A Definition…

Chiasmus is a Greek term meaning “diagonal arrangement.” It is used to describe two successive clauses or sentences where the key words or phrases are repeated in both clauses, but in reverse order. For this reason, chiasmus is sometimes known as a criss-cross figure of speech.

For example, consider the common phrase:

When the going gets tough,
the tough get going!

“Going” and “tough” are reversed in successive clauses, while the other words (when, the, gets) bind them together and often include straightforward repetition (the, get/gets).

In the general pattern, when your first clause contains two words A and B, then the second clause contains the same words, but in reverse order:

[1] … A… B…
[2] … B… A…

Each of “A” and “B” can be either a single word, or a group of words. Graphically, it looks like this:


Isn’t that antimetabole?

Some rhetorical glossaries distinguish between chiasmus (diagonal arrangement of ideas and grammar) and antimetabole (diagonal arrangement of exact words). According to this, every example on this page is antimetabole. However, chiasmus is the more common term, and this subtle distinction is probably beyond what most speakers care about. So, I’ll follow the lead of those who describe both as chiasmus, like Jay Heinrichs. The key point is not knowing what it is called, but rather using it in your speeches!

Chiasmus from John F. Kennedy

Chiasmus was a common technique used by John F. Kennedy (or perhaps his speechwriters). We include just a few of his chiastic phrases here.

For example, the most famous line from his Inaugural Address (January 20, 1961) reverses your country and you in successive parallel clauses:

Ask not what your country can do for you
— ask what you can do for your country.

In the same speech, he says:

Let us never negotiate out of fear.
But let us never fear to negotiate.

In his address to the United Nations General Assembly on September 25, 1961, he repeats that line, slightly massaged to reflect his audience and his relationship to it:

[…] we shall never negotiate out of fear,
we shall never fear to negotiate.

The same speech includes:

Mankind must put an end to war,
or war will put an end to mankind.

Finally, his 1963 address on the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty includes:

Each increase of tension has produced an increase of arms;
each increase of arms has produced an increase of tension.

More Chiasmus Examples

Winston Churchill used chiasmus in his Iron Curtain speech (March 5, 1946):

Let us preach what we practise
let us practise what we preach.

Ronald Reagan, speaking of relations between the United States and Soviet Union:

We don’t mistrust each other because we’re armed;
we’re armed because we mistrust each other.

Barack Obama, in 2006:

My job is not to represent Washington to you,
but to represent you to Washington.

Bill Clinton, 2008 Democratic National Convention:

People the world over have always been more impressed by the power of our example
than by the example of our power.

Sarah Palin, 2008 Republican National Convention:

In politics there are some candidates who use change to promote their careers,
and there are those like John McCain who use their careers to promote change.

Chiasmus in the Bible

There are entire websites devoted to Biblical passages built around chiastic patterns. Here, we include just a couple from the New Testament:

Matthew 19:30 …

But many who are first will be last,
and many who are last will be first.

Matthew 23:12 …

For whoever exalts himself will be humbled,
and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.

Chiasmus in Music

Crosby Stills, Nash & Young sang a famous song titled “Love the One You’re With”:

And if you can’t be with the one you love, honey,
Love the one you’re with.

Chiasmus in Literature

William Shakespeare, Richard II:

I wasted time,
and now time doth waste me.

The motto of Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Muskateers, (and also the unofficial motto of Switzerland):

All for one,
and one for all.

Horton the elephant’s signature phrase in Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hatches the Egg:

I meant what I said,
and I said what I meant.

Chiasmus in Advertising

Band-Aid brand adhesive bandages:

I am stuck on Band-Aid,
and Band-Aid‘s stuck on me.

Chiasmus in Everyday Sayings

From popular wisdom:

If you fail to plan,
then you plan to fail.


You can take the boy out of the country,
but you can’t take the country out of the boy.


Quitters never win
and winners never quit.

A Guide for Using Chiasmus in Your Speeches

It’s not that hard to create your own chiasmus for your speeches. I crafted several of the examples in this article in just a few minutes, including this one:

I’d rather have lots of love and little money,
instead of lots of money and little love.

It’s not as polished as “Ask not…”, but you’ve got to start somewhere.

To help you along, here are a few guidelines:

  1. Use with moderation
  2. Rethink relationships
  3. Question causation
  4. Riff off chiasmus examples

Guideline 1: Use with Moderation

Chiasmus, like most rhetorical devices, is best when used in moderation. If you use chiasmus over and over again, you’ll diminish the impact, and you’ll start to sound gimmicky.

For most speeches, one or two is enough.

Guideline 2: Rethink Relationships

Kennedy’s most famous chiasmus plays on the relationship between the country and the individual. The criss-cross invites his audience to rethink the relationship between the two.

You, too, can take relationships and flip them around. Consider the relationship between a speaker and the audience:

A good audience listens to the speaker.
A great speaker listens to the audience.

Or, the relationship between parents and children:

In middle age, parents take care of their children;
In old age, children take care of them.

Guideline 3: Question Causation

Several famous chiastic phrases play on the causation between two entities.

For example, the quotation from Ronald Reagan above questions whether arms cause mistrust, or whether mistrust causes arms:

We don’t mistrust each other because we’re armed;
we’re armed because we mistrust each other.

Try taking other concepts and flipping them around. For example, in a speech questioning whether failure causes despair, or vice versa:

I give up when all is lost,
but all is lost only when I give up.

Rhetorical Devices Article Series

Guideline 4: Riff off Chiasmus Examples

If you’ve never tried to craft chiasmus before, a good place to start is taking a known chiasmus and using it as a template into which you can substitute one or both key repeated words.

Cicero is quoted as saying:

One should eat to live,
not live to eat.

This has been morphed numerous ways, including:

One should work to live,
not live to work.

You could take the basic pattern and apply it your situation. For example, a speech about passion while speaking might include:

A professional speaker doesn’t just speak to live
— she lives to speak!

While researching this article, I came across an intriguing book titled Never Let a Fool Kiss You or a Kiss Fool You by Mardy Grothe. With hundreds of chiasmus examples, there’s an awful lot to riff off of. I may have to add this to my Christmas list.

Your Turn: Try it Out!

With a little brainstorming and experimentation, you can elevate your speeches with chiasmus.

Try it out, and share your examples in the article comments.

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Add a Comment

Comments icon13 Comments

  1. Jim Bob Howard says:

    Great article! Thanks, Andrew. Here’s my example:

    You don’t need patience to have lots of children;
    Having lots of children teaches you patience.

    More that aren’t mine, but in which I find much truth:

    People don’t care what you know
    Until they know that you care.

    God doesn’t call the able;
    He enables the called.

    1. Jim Bob Howard says:

      Oh, and another one about the Bible itself…

      This book will keep you from sin…
      Or sin will keep you from this book.

    2. Andrew Dlugan says:

      Thanks, Jim Bob.

      I especially like “People don’t care…”

  2. Great post. I’ve never studied rhetoric, but now I wish I had.

  3. Nichol Brummer (@Twundit) says:

    Seneca had an interesting one:

    It isn’t because it is difficult that we don’t dare. It is because we don’t dare that it is difficult.

    .. and this is nearly what Kennedy said about the space program, which roughly was: it is not because it is easy that we do difficult things, but we choose to take on challenges because they are hard.

  4. Enya says:

    Love means never having to say you’re sorry.
    Saying you’re sorry has no meaning in love.

    1. Enya says:

      this is very difficult, did I do it right?

  5. Lanetta says:

    I need help with coming up with chiasmus sentences. Can someone please use these words in a chiasmus sentence. Capacious, didactic, ignominious, palpitate, phlegmatic, prostrate. Thank you in advance

  6. ali shan says:

    nice to read

  7. Collins Onyango says:

    My attempt at chiasmus is:
    You have the choice to be a good example to your kids or your kids will have no choice but to be a bad example.

  8. Kevin White says:

    Thanks for this. My personal favorite Chiasmus is “They don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.”

  9. Debiro Jinkai says:

    I want to you know but I don’t want to tell you and I don’t want you to know but I want to tell you.

    1. Debiro Jinkai says:

      Three in one and one in three

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