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history

May 29, two days from now, marks the centennial of the birth in Brookline, Mass., of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, our 35th president, at 43 and 7 month the youngest ever to be elected to that position. Many of us recall the assassination and funeral of President Kennedy more than a half century ago.

Those events were a turning point in American history. It was the first time that virtually the entire nation came together to witness a national tragedy largely through television. The live coverage and images of those events — the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald, the president’s funeral cortege, the dirge music, the international dignitaries, the grieving, black-veiled widow and the president’s tiny son, John John, saluting the flag — seared the national psyche and established television as an archetypal source of national news.

In contrast to that dark time, we also remember a happier day that shone at the very start of Kennedy’s presidency.

On January 20, 1961, many thousands converged on Washington, D.C., to be a part of Kennedy’s inauguration. A blizzard had struck the eastern seaboard that day. The streets of the capital were clogged with snow and stranded automobiles, but the inaugural ceremony went on, and a new president delivered one of the most memorable addresses in American history.

What makes President Kennedy’s speech so unforgettable is its striking use of parallel structure — the repetition of grammatical forms to emphasize similar ideas. Let’s look at a few brief excerpts from that indelible inaugural address that exemplify the president’s powerful use of parallelism. Examine each section with an ear and eye toward incorporating parallel structure and other uses of balanced prose into your own speaking and writing styles.

Early in his oration, the president issues this clarion call: “We observe today not a victory of party but a celebration of freedom,” immediately followed by the tandem participial phrases “symbolizing an end as well as a beginning, signifying renewal as well as change.” The echoic sounds of symbolizing and signifying enhance the parallel “as well as” prepositional phrases.

Similar parallelism infuses sentence after sentence that follows, as in “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty.”

After a the balanced adjectives “whether it wishes us well or ill,” Kennedy employs five parallel verb-direct object constructions — “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe.” Alliteration is the repetition of initial consonant sounds. Listen to the music of this device in the pairings of pay/price, bear/burden, friend/foe and, finally, survival/success.

Kennedy goes on to declare: “So let us begin anew, remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate.” Following the balanced noun clauses — “that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof,” Kennedy utters the memorable “Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate.” Here the powerful “Let us …” clauses are marked by chiasmus, the rhetorical transposition of key words, in this case negotiate and fear.

Near the conclusion of his inaugural address, President Kennedy again employs chiasmus to craft what is probably his most enduring statement: “And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world, ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.”

In this ringing passage, each sentence begins with a direct address — “my fellow Americans” and “my fellow citizens of the world.” The two chiasmi — “country … you” and “you … country” — work their magic with four parallel noun clauses — “what your country can do…, what you can do …, what America will do …, what we can do ….”

I do not contend that President Kennedy’s oration is so unforgettable solely because of its parallel structure. But would we remember his message as vividly if he had declaimed, “You shouldn’t worry about the things you can get from your country. Instead, consider how you can contribute to America”?