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Parallelism for fun and profit


W.C. Green is from good Republican stock--her grandmother used to render them down for soup. Since she can't grow up to be Cato the Elder, she takes out her disappointment on modern orators.

by Rhetorix - February 16th, 2001

As promised, this week I bring examples and explanations of parallelism, a rhetorical device that allows writers and speakers to repeat themselves for fun and profit.

My first example is by Dick Morris in his column "Cat's Out of the Bag on Hill's Gifts" (02/11/01) "Where on the disclosure forms are the five beautiful dresses publicly reported to have been given to Hillary by the King of Morocco on the occasion of his state visit? Hillary was seen wearing one of these gowns, a gold lace Moroccan dress that the king had given to her. None of these appears on the forms.

"And what about an eagle pin that has been publicly reported to have been given to her by Phyllis George Brown, a former Miss America who is the ex-wife of the onetime governor of Kentucky? This gift doesn't appear on the forms either."

As I noted last week, parallelism repeats the structure or flow of clauses, sentences, or paragraphs to heighten the impact of the ideas conveyed. Here, Mr. Morris tells us of a gift (or gifts) that may have been given to Senator Hillary Clinton, shows that that gift (or those gifts) were seen in close proximity to Senator Clinton, then notes that that gift (or those gifts) do not appear on the required disclosure forms that Senator Clinton should have filed before leaving the White House. By using the same repetitive structure to convey his facts, he imparts a sense of the number of gifts not disclosed without the boredom of reciting the list.

Granted, Mr. Morris does not demonstrate the same level of rhetorical skill that Shakespeare used in Marc Antony's elegy for Julius Caesar ("For Brutus is an honorable man. . . ."), but a device is a device, no matter how skillfully employed.

Shorter examples of parallelism appear in Maureen Dowd's Valentine's Day column on former President Clinton and Justice Clarence Thomas: One of these Southerners is renowned for talking, one for not talking. But both nurse bitterness at ideological critics and the news media, and both crave respect.

As Bill Clinton went to Harlem seeking validation from a mostly black crowd, Clarence Thomas went to the Hilton seeking validation from a mostly white crowd.

Many of the whites who crowded around Clarence can't stand Bill. And many of the blacks who crowded around Bill can't stand Clarence. Columnist Dowd wields this device with brevity and punch (although I refuse to comment on her sentence fragments-one never knows when one may need a column idea). Her uses run from the exact reuse of structure, words, and sounds (second paragraph) to the looser structure of the first sentence. She also uses antistrophe, the repetition of a closing word or phrase at the end of successive clauses in both these examples.

To complete the 'hat trick', the last paragraph is a good example of chiasmus, the mirror inversion of word order and the opposite of parallelism. Chiasmus' effect comes not from the solid, orderly repetition of words that pound an idea into the minds of readers or listeners, but from the repetition of the same words in reverse order that perks their attention. The catch phase "When the going gets tough. . . ." is memorable thanks to its chiamus.

Chiasmus lends itself readily to word-play. It is easy, however to slide into the trite while employing this device, as the final example shows:

"Star-kist don't want tunas with good taste-they want tunas that taste good."

If only these fine rhetorical devices could be used for something more elevated than advertising slogans! It is, however, their ability to render even the silly memorable that makes them such useful tools.

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"...a device is a device, no matter how skillfully employed ..."

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