On this day in 1961, John F. Kennedy was sworn in as the United States’ 34th president. From the text of his inaugural address, Kennedy uttered what has become probably the most famous sentence in political history: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
Kennedy, who at 42 years of age was the youngest president ever elected, exuded youth, enthusiasm, and idealism as he proclaimed that “the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans . . . .” The skillful use of rhythm, repetition, alliteration, antithesis, and parallelism make Kennedy’s inaugural address a rhetorical masterpiece. The speech’s most memorable line, however, features a distinctive rhetorical device called chiasmus.
Chiasmus, which is also known as antimetabole, is the “all for one, one for all” device. It is a special brand of parallel structure that involves a rhetorical criss-cross or flip-flop. What makes chiasmus distinctive is that the words are not just repeated, rather they are repeated in reverse order, as in, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”
In order to see the power of Kennedy’s chiasmus, contrast what Kennedy might have said with what he actually said:
Without chiasmus: “Do not be self-centered, thinking only of yourself; instead; think of what you can do to contribute to your country.”
With chiasmus: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
Notice how with chiasmus the reversal of the words “you” and “country” causes the reader to reevaluate the relationship between the two ideas. More than just a rhetorical flourish, this is one of the central themes of Kennedy’s message.
Also notice that not only does chiasmus make the sentence more memorable, but also the sentence’s simple, clear words pack a punch. Of the sentence’s 17 words, all but two are single-syllable words. The only word of more than a single syllable is the keyword “country,” which is repeated twice for emphasis. Like Lincoln and Churchill before him, Kennedy knew the power of clear, concise language.
Today’s Challenge: What Chiasmus Can Do for You
As seen in Kennedy’s use of chiasmus, it is an especially useful device for reversing an audience’s attitude or attempting to correct or flip an audience’s thinking. What are some general beliefs or attitudes held by many people that you think should be changed? How might you employ chiasmus to state the change in belief or attitude that you want to see?
Create a sentence using chiasmus that states a change in a belief or attitude that you would like to see. For example:
“You don’t own your cellphone; your cellphone owns you.”
Then write a short speech using that sentence as your title. In your speech explain specifically the change you would like to see and why you think this change would be an improvement.
If you can’t think of an original sentence, create a spin-off chiasmus using Kennedy’s sentence or some of the other examples below:
Quitters never win and winners never quit.
If you fail to plan, then you plan to fail.
Do things right, and do the right things.
One should work to live, not live to work.
Example spin-off: Don’t ask what your English teacher can do for you, ask what you can do for your English teacher.
(Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)
Quotation of the Day: Try to learn something about everything and everything about something. -Thomas Henry Huxley