WCS6: Using Parallelism

LEARNING OBJECTIVES

  1. Recognize lack of parallelism.
  2. Present paired ideas in parallel format.
  3. Present items in a series in parallel format.

Parallelism is the presentation of ideas of equal weight in the same grammatical fashion. It’s one of those features of writing that’s a matter of grammar, style, rhetoric, and content. Used well, it can enhance your readers’ (and even your own) understanding and appreciation of a topic. The most famous line from John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address provides another example (a specific kind of reversal of phrasing known as antimetabole): “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” You’ll encounter parallelism not only in politics but in advertising, religion, and poetry as well:

  • “Strong enough for a man, but made for a woman.”
  • “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”
  • “Some say the world will end in fire, / Some say in ice.”

The following video from Khan Academy provides a detailed description of what parallel structure is:

“Parallel Structure.” Published by Khan Academy.

Here are a couple of examples of sentences in need of parallelism.

Example 1

While it was raining, I had to run into the grocery store, the dry cleaners, and stop at the bookstore.

This sentence is not parallel because it includes three equally weighted ideas but presents two of them with action verbs and one without. By simply adding words such as “swing by” to the middle item, the sentence becomes parallel: While it was raining, I had to run into the grocery store, swing by the dry cleaners, and stop at the bookstore.f

You could also correct this sentence by removing “stop at” from the third idea: While it was raining, I had to run into the grocery store, the dry cleaners, and the book store.

Example 2

The test was long and requiring skills we hadn’t learned.

This sentence is not parallel because it presents two like-weighted ideas using two different grammatical formats. Here is a parallel version:

The test was long and required skills we hadn’t learned.

Parallelism is most often an issue with paired ideas and items in a series as shown in the preceding two examples. A key idea to keep in mind is that you need to use common wording with both items, such as common articles (e.g., the, a, an) and common prepositions (e.g., by, for, of, on, to). The next two subsections provide more in-depth discussion of these two concepts.

Making Paired Items Parallel

In a sentence, paired items or ideas are often connected with either a comparative expression (e.g.,easier than, as much as, bigger than), a coordinated conjunction (e.g., and, but, for, nor, or, so, yet), or a correlative conjunction (e.g., both…and, either…or, just as…so, neither…nor, not…but, not only…but also, whether…or). Read the following examples that contain errors. Think of a way to correct each sentence. Then look below the error to see possible corrections. Note that you can usually correct each error in more than one way.

Example 1

Comparative Expression

Our neighbor’s house is bigger than the size of our house.

Possible Corrections:

Our neighbor’s house is bigger than our house.

OR

The size of our neighbor’s house is bigger than the size of our house.

Example 2

Coordinated Conjunction

Louie, my crazy shih tzu loves running after Frisbees and plays with leaves.

Possible Corrections:

Louie, my crazy shih tzu, loves running after Frisbees and playing with leaves.

OR

Louie, my crazy shih tzu, loves to run after Frisbees and to play with leaves.

Example 3

Correlative Conjunction

Not only was he rude, but also ate all the shrimp balls.

Possible Correction:

Not only was he rude, but he also ate all the shrimp balls.

Here’s a video by Khan Academy which explains how to use correlative conjunctions:

“Correlative Conjunctions.” Published by Khan Acadeny.

Making Items in a Series Parallel

Items in a series include ideas embedded in a sentence as well as those in numbered or bulleted lists. One way to check for parallelism is to say the sentence stem that precedes the first item and then, one at a time, add each subsequent series item to the stem. Assuming the stem works with the first item, subsequent items that do not work with the stem are not parallel with the first item.

Example

After I get off work, I’m driving to the gym, doing five miles, and weights.

Stem prior to the first item: After I get off work, I’m…

Stem works with the first item: After I get off work, I’m driving to the gym.

Stem works with the second item: After I get off work, I’m doing five miles.

Stem does not work with the third item: After I get off work, weights.

A version of the sentence that is parallel: After I get off work, I’m driving to the gym, running five miles, and lifting weights.

Now stem does work with the third item: After I get off work, I’m lifting weights.

Read the two error examples and imagine how you could correct each one. Then check below the error for possible corrections.

Utilizing Parallel Structure

If you take the most impressive or startling item in a series and place it last, you can draw attention to it as well as to the whole series. Look at the difference in the following two sentences:

Most impressive item last: In the accident, he received cuts on his face, a mild concussion, a cracked rib, and a ruptured spleen.

Most impressive item buried within the series: In the accident, he received cuts on his face, a ruptured spleen, a cracked rib, and a mild concussion.

Using like or paired words along with ideas you are comparing can help you emphasize the comparison.

Example with like words: It’s unusual to feel intense attraction and intense repulsion for the same person.

Example with paired words: You always seem to run to guitar lessons and crawl to piano lessons.


Adapted from Chapter 16 “Sentence Style” in Writer’s Handbook v 1.0 used according to Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

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