Jose Carillo's Forum


On this webpage, Jose A. Carillo shares with English users, learners, and teachers a representative selection of his essays on the English language, particularly on its uses and misuses. One essay will be featured every week, and previously featured essays will be archived in the forum.

A figure of speech that’s often used to subvert reason and logic

In the run-up to every hotly contested election, when the major protagonists begin pulling out all the stops to win over the voters’ minds, we need to strengthen our personal radar for truth, half-truth, and outright falsehood. We should be particularly vigilant against political rhetoric laced with chiasmus, a figure of speech that’s often used by crafty candidates and their minions to strongly arouse our emotions and diminish our logical thinking. To give Forum members and guests a clear understanding of what chiasmus is and how it works to subvert reason, I thought of again posting here in the Forum an essay that I wrote about this figure of speech for my English-usage column in The Manila Times way back in 2003. (May 5, 2013)

Click on the title below to read the essay.

An all-time vehicle for expressing great truths and great untruths

Ever wondered how some people have moved us or inspired us to do great things their way, or mesmerized us, put blinders on our eyes, then made us do irrational things that we would never have dreamed of doing had we not been under their spell?

If so, then the speakers—unless they had recited great poetry—must have been using chiasmus. This figure of speech towers above all the other rhetorical devices in its ability to lower our built-in defenses and arouse our emotions. We could very well call chiasmus the linguistic incarnation of charisma—that rare and elusive power of certain people to inspire fierce loyalty and devotion among their followers.

The use of chiasmus dates back to antiquity. In the 6th century B.C., the extremely wealthy Lydian king Croesus went on record using it: “In peace sons bury their fathers, but in war fathers bury their sons.” Such wisdom in only 13 words! Is it possible that he became fabulously wealthy because he was so adept at chiasmus and—by implication—at compelling people’s obedience? Or did he become so good at coining chiasmus because his wealth had allowed him the leisure to craft it?

Now take a look at this familiar line from U.S. president John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address, on which so many English-language elocution students had labored investing their own vocal energies over the years: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Just 17 words, but they give us the feeling of an immensely satisfying four-hour lecture on good citizenship. Then see chiasmus at work in this charming line by the English physician and author Havelock Ellis: “Charm is a woman’s strength; strength is a man’s charm.” And, one more time, hark to this timeless sage advice from Genesis 9:6: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.”

By now you must have already discovered for yourself the fundamental structure and mechanism of chiasmus: it reverses the order of words in two parallel phrases. Take this chiasmus by the legendary Hollywood actress Mae West: “I’d rather be looked over than overlooked.” “Looked over” is “overlooked” in reverse, making the speaker wickedly but deliciously imply that she enjoys being ogled at. Or take this arresting, old advertising slogan of a Philippine insurance company: “If someone depends on you, you can depend on Insular Life.” By some linguistic alchemy, the parallel word reversals arouse our senses, disarming us so we readily accept their claim as true. Chiasmus has this power because it heightens the sense of drama in language by surprise. It is no wonder that it holds the distinction of being mankind’s all-time vehicle for expressing great truths and, conversely, also great untruths.

Most types of chiasmus reverse the words of familiar sayings in a felicitously parallel way, as in the French proverb, “Love makes time pass, time makes love pass.” For chiasmus to succeed, however, the two insights offered by the word reversals should both be true and survive subsequent scrutiny. (They could also be untrue, and therein lies the danger in chiasmus in the hands of demagogues and charlatans.) But chiasmus need not be an exact reversal of a familiar saying. Take what the English writer Richard Brinksley said on beholding for the first time the woman whom he was to later marry: “Why don’t you come into my garden? I would like my roses to see you.” This implied chiasmus cleverly reverses this usual invitation of proud homemakers: “I’d like you to see my roses.” And chiasmus also nicely takes the form of questions, as in this line from Antigone by the 5th century Greek dramatist Sophocles: “What greater ornament to a son than a father’s glory, or to a father than a son’s honorable conduct?”

If chiasmus is this pleasurable, does it mean that we should spend a lot of time composing it ourselves to impress people? Not at all! Chiasmus is meant to be used very sparingly, to be reserved only for those very special moments when saying them can truly spell a make-or-break difference in our lives, like preparing for battle, wooing the hearts and minds of people, ruing abject failure, or celebrating great success. In our everyday lives, it is enough for us to spot a good chiasmus so we can savor its wisdom, and to have the wisdom to know when we are simply being conned with fallacy or propaganda masquerading as great truth. (October 16, 2003)
From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, October 16, 2003 issue © 2003 by The Manila Times. All rights reserved.

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Previously Featured Essay:

The Fireside-Chat Technique

One major reason why even highly intelligent, well-educated people find it difficult to write is that they have not learned to get into the proper frame of mind for it. They stare at the blank paper or the blank computer screen with dread, wracking their brains to find that voice that can make their writing sparkle and become more persuasive, more convincing, perhaps more impressive. But more often than not, even the first line of what they want to say eludes them. This is because they cannot even form a clear mental picture of who they are writing to. The same people who can effortlessly carry on lively, brilliant conversations with their associates or deliver spellbinding speeches to huge audiences suddenly develop imaginary stage fright when writing, browbeaten into inaction by a faceless audience in their minds.

There is actually a very simple, straightforward technique to combat this mental paralysis. Just imagine an audience of one—only one. Forget about all the others who may have an interest in what you have to say; you will have time to bring them into the picture much, much later. Just focus on this audience of one—your boss, your staff, a critic, a lover, in fact anyone in particular—and imagine that he or she is right in front of you beside a nicely burning fireplace. For a reason that I will tell you later, make sure that it is a fireplace and not a living room sofa or dining table. Once this becomes clear in your mind, state your case gently, carefully answering every possible objection from your audience of one, clarifying when necessary but never arguing. When you are through, simply stop, then quietly ask your audience of one what he or she thinks. That’s all. No verbal pyrotechnics or literary flourishes. Just plain and simple talk.

You will be surprised by what the fireside-chat approach can do to your English writing, no matter what form it takes—memo, letter, essay, speech, or feature article. It will be virtually impossible for you to use legalese, gobbledygook, or wordy phrases. You will know it in your bones how ridiculous it is to use them. Just imagine how a sensible, intelligent person facing you will react to gobbledygook like this: “Sir, urban life in the context of the worsening population problem and traffic situation has taken its toll on me and my family. This realization has compelled me to make a major decision that I realize may affect the operations of the division whose management you have so kindly entrusted to me. Much to my regret, however, I am taking this occasion to inform you that my family and I have reached a decision to move...”

This is often the way memos on such sensitive subjects are written, but if you spoke this way during a fireside chat, your listener obviously will conclude that you have gone out of your mind. He may just decide to fire you ahead of your resignation, or shove you into the fireplace to put you back to your senses. Now you know why we need that fireplace there: it is not only for intimacy but for a quick reality check as well.

More likely, of course, when your thoughts are suitably tempered by the fireside ambiance, you will get rid of your legalese, gobbledygook, and wordy phrases and speak in plain and simple English, probably in this manner: “Sir, city life has become very difficult for me and my family. We can no longer bear the congestion and the traffic. I like my job and I am grateful to you for making me a division manager, but my family and I have decided to move...” Isn’t this the tenor of thought that you have been looking for all along? Imagining a fireside chat with an audience of one will not only make it possible but inevitable! This authentic human voice is really the only sensible way to talk about things that really matter to people. It is, believe me, also the most sensible and effective way to write to anyone other than yourself.

The fireside-chat technique actually uses the same formula that works so well in public speaking. You know the routine. Speak to only one person in the audience at any one time. Fix that person in the eye and imagine that you are speaking only to her and no one else, and once you have made your point, do the same to another person in the audience, and so on. Addressing all of the audience at the same time will require you to shift your eyes like crazy and focus on no one, making you look ridiculous.

So next time, when you find it difficult to write, simply use the fireside-chat technique. It may not make you a great writer, but it surely will make you a much better communicator than you are right now.

From the book English Plain and Simple: No-Nonsense Ways to Learn Today’s Global Language by Jose A. Carillo © 2003 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

Editing Oneself

Like most people, it took me a long time to discover that what matters more in writing is not so much what we want to say but what the readers want to know. This, I think, is the biggest single reason why most of the writing we see around us is stiff, obtuse, and uncommunicative. Many writers forget or don’t even think about who their readers or listeners are. They do a secret monologue to themselves.

No wonder then that so many articles for academic journals just end up talking to the paper they are written on, and why many of the speeches we hear are so obtuse they might as well be delivered before an empty hall. Most of the writing that comes my way to be edited, in fact, shows very little evidence of honest-to-goodness effort to connect to the reader or listener. The research is often competent, but the prose almost always suffers from the dead weight of piled-up, undigested, and impersonally expressed information.

Take this lead sentence of a draft speech that I edited sometime ago: “Aldous Huxley wrote brilliantly about hallucinogens and their effect on creativity.” Of course, only someone who has read several books about Huxley, about hallucinogens, and about creativity can legitimately make such an audacious thesis—and the writer in this case obviously had not done so. What I did then was to recast the passage so the author could more modestly say it in the first-person singular and make the proper attributions: “A few days ago, I came across this brilliant but disturbing idea by Aldous Huxley, who wrote about hallucinogens and their effect on creativity. Let me share it with you and comment about it as I go along …” By doing so, I saved the writer from the embarrassment of making a tall claim totally outside his level of expertise.

This is actually a simple paradox: you become authoritative only when you write or speak as yourself. You can comfortably talk only about the things you really know, and only after you have declared the limits of your knowledge. Readers and audiences have a sixth sense for claimed authority that’s not really there, no matter if you have an MA or PhD tacked to your name. I therefore suggest you try this approach if you already have a draft of anything that’s bothering you for its dryness and stiffness, or for not being entirely original. See how this personal approach can perk up your prose and make it sound more interesting.

One final thought about self-editing: no draft is ever sacrosanct and final. There’s always a better way to say what you have written. With today’s word processors, it’s so much easier now to clarify prose that would otherwise mystify or confuse, or to support abstract concepts with telling details and picture words. You can easily transpose whole sentences and paragraphs, even turn your draft totally upside down until it captures precisely what you have in your mind. The mechanical constraints against total rewrites are gone.

And just when everything seems to be already in place, go over your draft once more. Knock off any word, phrase, sentence, or paragraph that doesn’t contribute to the idea or mood you want to convey. Stop only when you have whittled down your manuscript until it’s in danger of collapsing if you attempted to excise another word. In time, you will discover what many successful writers already know but rarely publicly admit: that good writing is really the art of rewriting, the art of doing brutal surgery on one’s own thoughts.

From the book Give Your English the Winning Edge by Jose A. Carillo © 2009 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

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