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Writing Tips: Parallelism


Parallelism

1. Parallelism: Introduction, Definition, Purpose, Examples

Parallelism is the use of similar patterns of words (or grammatical forms) to express similar or related ideas or ideas of equal importance. Using parallel structures creates rhythm and balance and enables the writer to present ideas clearly, concisely, and smoothly.  Perhaps even more importantly, parallelism can help a writer highlight or emphasize information or make a powerful point.  Without parallelism, writing can become clunky, awkward, and needlessly confusing.  With it, reading can become easy to understand, pleasing to the ear, and even persuasive.

For an easy way to understand parallelism, take a quick look at two sentences written with structures that aren't parallel:

Golf requires hand-eye coordination, flexibility, and to be able to concentrate.

Jack is responsible for loading the trunk, cleaning the seat cushions, and the engine check.

In both cases, you can see the basic function of parallelism at work - or more precisely, the lack of it.  In the first example, the first two items of a three-item list are nouns, while the last item is a verb phrase.  In the second example, the first two items are verb phrases, and the third is a noun.  In neither case does the faulty parallelism actually create a factual error or alter the meaning of the sentence.  But notice how the following two parallel versions not only attain parallelism - thus demonstrating control of the writing and gaining credibility with readers - but they also become much more smooth, rhythmic, and easy to follow:

Golf requires hand-eye coordination, flexibility, and concentration.

Jack is responsible for loading the trunk, cleaning the seat cushions, and checking the engine.

 


 

 2. Some Famous Examples In the previous examples, a simple word change or two corrects the problem; we now have a sentence with three nouns and another with three verb phrases, which creates consistency and a smooth rhythm.  Now take a look at a few famous quotations that contain parallel structures, and note not only the consistency and rhythm, but also how the parallelism helps emphasize a point and make an impact on the reader:

"You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time." - Abraham Lincoln

"Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." - John F. Kennedy

"We are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream." - Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

In what positive ways are these sentences affected by the use of parallel structures?  In addition to simply making the reader sit up and listen by being compellingly written, they also help achieve a clarity of purpose by the end of the sentence.  By the time Lincoln's line reaches its conclusion, for instance, we understand clearly the meaning of the final clause ("you cannot fool all the people all the time"), thanks in large part to the repetition: Having heard the first two items of his list, the third one becomes very easy for us to grasp.  Kennedy's balanced pairing simplifies his sentence, thus highlighting the meaning, while the repetition of those passionate words at the beginning of King's famous quotation heightens our interest in what he's about to say. Then his beautiful imagery and thought-provoking analogies in the second part of the sentence give the line its great power.  Without using parallel structures, this compelling line might have lost much of its impact.

If you feel the need for a more contemporary example, how about this line from the Offspring's rock song "Keep 'em Separated":

"Your never-ending spree of death and violence and hate is gonna tie your own rope... ."

 Can you imagine how clunky that line would have been if it were "your never-ending spree of death and committing violence and being filled with hate is gonna tie your own rope"?  Clearly, the parallel usage of three consecutive one-word nouns was imperative to that line.

 


 

  3. Some Further Examples

Writing with clear, parallel structures is important to all kinds of writing on all levels, not just major political speeches and pop song lyrics.  Notice how the parallel sentences in the following examples achieve not only greater clarity than the non-parallel ones, avoiding confusing grammatical shifts, but they also have a bit more style than their non-parallel counterparts, achieving greater credibility and readability with the audience.

Parallel:

 

  Working on tall bridges requires tremendous balance, demands amazing agility, and creates an eventual lack of fear.
Non-parallel: Working on tall bridges requires tremendous balance, amazing agility, and will create an eventual lack of fear.  (**Notice how the non-parallel item here actually slows you down as you read it, creating an uncomfortable pause.)
Also parallel: Working on tall bridges requires tremendous balance, amazing agility, and, eventually, a lack of fear.
Also parallel: Working on tall bridges requires having tremendous balance, being amazingly agile, and learning to be less fearful.
Parallel: John Belushi is remembered for his physical style of comedy, his blues singing, and his self-destructive behavior.
Non-parallel: John Belushi is remembered for his physical style of comedy, his blues singing, and for behavior that was self-destructive.
Parallel: In assembling the basketball team, we looked for players whose style of play was physical, whose backgrounds were impressive, and whose potential was boundless.
Non-parallel: In assembling the basketball team, we looked for players whose style of play was physical, with impressive backgrounds, and who had boundless potential.
Parallel: The doctor has the responsibility of providing the examinations and reviewing the medical history of the employees.
Non-parallel: The doctor has the responsibility of providing the examinations and to review the medical history of the employees.

 


 

4. Parallelism in Pairs and in a Series

You've noticed that parallel structures can work both in a series of three or more grammatical items or in a pairing of two such items, as the following examples indicate.

4a.  PARALLELISM IN PAIRS

In pairs, parallel structures are usually connected with one of the following:

a coordinating conjunction (such as and, but, and or)

a pair of correlative conjunctions (such as either/or, neither/nor, and not only/but also)

a word introducing a comparison (such as than or as).

Parallel:   At many high schools, truancy can result in suspension or expulsion from school.
Non-parallel: At many high schools, truancy can result in suspension or being expelled from school.
Parallel: The new ingredient will reduce the fat and increase the taste of our burger patty.
Non-Parallel: The new ingredient will reduce the fat in our burger patty, and the meat will have more taste.
Parallel: Many businesses are reducing employee overhead and extending long-term insurance policies.
Non-Parallel: Many business are reducing employee overhead and they extend long-term insurance policies.
Parallel: His favorite exercises were running and playing basketball.
Also Parallel: To run and to play basketball were his favorite exercises
Non-parallel: To run and playing basketball were his favorite exercises.
Parallel: I've read about his running every day and playing basketball six times a week.
Also parallel: I've read that he runs every day and plays basketball six times a week.
Non-parallel: I've read about his running every day and that he plays basketball six times a week.
Parallel: I always believed that giving was better than receiving.
Non-parallel: I always believed that giving was better than to receive.

4b. PARALLELISM IN A SERIES

Always remember to use a comma after every item in a series.

Parallel:   Chuck is responsible for stocking the aisles, checking deliveries, and selling merchandise.
Non-parallel: Chuck is responsible for stocking the aisles, checking deliveries, and sales of merchandise.
Parallel: Troubled teen-agers often exhibit the following symptoms:  anxiousness, withdrawal, depression, and rebelliousness.
Non-Parallel: Troubled teen-agers often exhibit the following symptoms:  anxiousness, withdrawal, depression, and they are rebellious too.
Parallel: After losing his glasses, Tom drove down the wrong side of the street, ran a stop sign, and went through two red lights.
Also Parallel: After losing his glasses, Tom drove down the wrong side of the street and ran a stop sign and two red lights. (** Notice how this revision actually changes the sentence from a three-item list to a two-item pairing.)
Non-parallel: After losing his glasses, Tom drove down the wrong side of the street, ran a stop sign and two red lights.

 


 

5. Extended Parallelism (Parallelism in Paragraphs)

Extending the concept of parallelism beyond the length of a sentence and into an entire paragraph (or more) can result in some very powerful and effective writing, emphasizing certain points or feelings.  Check out how extending the repetition of key words and grammatical structures adds to the strength of this portion of a paragraph from Nikki Giovanni's "Pioneers: A View of Home" and in the other example that follows:

I submit that just as slavery took away our choice, so also did the over-crowded, disease-ridden cities of Europe; so also did religious persecution; so also did the abject and all but unspeakable Inquisition of the Spanish; so also did starvation in Italy; so also did the black, rotten potatoes lying in the fields of Ireland. They all came to the New World in a cruise ship. They all came because they had to.

In the coal mines of Alabama they worked, and in the coal mines of Alabama they sweated. They hammered in the coal mines of Alabama, and they dug and they scraped and they dynamited and they cut and they bled. And they dreamed of wives and children and grandchildren in the coal mines of Alabama, and of glory days on the gridiron and glory days yet to come. And they died in the coal mines of Alabama, either in accidents at the site or more slowly, little by little, moment by moment, year by year, from taking home with them little pieces of the coal mines of Alabama.

In that second example, notice how not only the key repeated words and phrases (as indicated by the red type) tie the paragraph together in a cohesive whole and add emphasis and power, but that other words and structures repeated within the paragraph ("wives and children and grandchildren," "glory days on the gridiron and glory days yet to come," "little by little, moment by moment, year by year," and the repetition of the word "and") give the paragraph a richness and a cohesiveness that packs an emotional punch.

Here is another example, this one written by a student, that shows how parallel structures carried throughout a paragraph can heighten the meaning or increase the power of a passage:

My parents complain that I am arrogant, thoughtless, and rebellious. I tell them they misunderstand me. What they see as arrogance is my attempt to be a person in my own right. What they see as thoughtlessness is usually just forgetfulness. What they see as rebelliousness is a drive to be independent.

And finally, examine this famous passage by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and notice how the repeated phrases "one hundred years later" and "now is the time" create the sense of immediacy he was aiming for, the sense that an injustice has been perpetuated for far too long and must not continue, the sense of "the fierce urgency of now."  It is this kind of repetition, and the parallel structures that build from it, that creates such powerful composition.

But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition... 

We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind Americans of the fierce urgency of now. . . Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of Godís children.

 


 

6. Some Word Choice Concerns

6a.  LEAD-IN WORDS AND PHRASES

In writing with parallel structures, be sure to remember to repeat all necessary lead-in or function words.  There is no reason to repeat a lead-in word, though, if it is the same for all the items of your list, as the following example shows

Crawfish can be found in streams, in swamps, and in ponds

Here, the second and third "in" aren't needed since they're the same as the first lead-in word

Crawfish can be found in streams, swamps, and ponds.

However, if the lead-in word is different for two or more of the items in your list, you need to include it for all the items, remembering to stay consistent in verb tense

You need to cut the watermelon, peel the bananas, and wash the grapes.

You need to cut the watermelon and peel the bananas and oranges.  (Again, notice how this version changes the sentence from one with a three-item list to one with a two-item list, which negates the need for a comma.)

Itís important also to remember where your list begins.  For instance, in the previous example, the list begins with "cut," meaning the lead-in phrase was "you need to."  In the following example, the verb phrase "to cut" is the same for all three items in the list, and therefore the lead-in phrase is simply "you need;" knowing where your lead-in ends and your list begins can help you more smoothly coordinate the parallel items within your list.

You need to cut the watermelon, the pie, and the swordfish.

Notice how a problem with the lead-ins causes the following sentence to become not only unclear but incorrect, too:

The character Superman has appeared on television, films, and comic books.

Did Superman really appear on films and on comic books?  How about trying it this way:

The character Superman has appeared on television, in films, and in comic books.

  Or:

The character Superman has appeared on television and in films and comic books.

In many instances, where the lead-in ends and the list begins is a judgment call.  Take the following sentence, for example:

Many drivers try switching to a better car or a more experienced crew.

In this case, you could say that the lead-in is "many drivers try switching to" and the two items are 1) a better car; and 2) a more experienced crew.  Some writers, however, might prefer the lead-in to end with "switching," while others may decide their lead-in is only "many drivers try," adding a verb to both items in the list; their sentences, respectively, would look like this:

Many drivers try switching to a better car or to a more experienced crew.

Many drivers try switching to a better car or hiring a more experienced crew.

Knowing you have these kinds of options in writing your sentences while still maintaining parallelism gives you a certain amount of control as a writer.  When you come to a sentence where this type of judgment call is needed, try the sentence several different ways with several different lead-in/list combinations, read them out loud, listen to how they sound, and pick the one you feel sounds and works the best.  When you find yourself making these types of judgment calls throughout your writing, not only concerning parallelism but other composition issues, as well, youíll be sure to find that your writing is improving, because each spot in a piece of writing that is well chosen helps add up to an overall effective work.

6b.  BUILDING UP FOR EMPHASIS

One last parallel structure consideration is the order in which you put your grammatical items.  Try saving your most powerful or important item till the end of the list. This creates a sense of building up to the most crucial point, and, as it is the last part of the sentence the reader will read, it is the part of the sentence most likely to stay in the reader's mind.  You can really leave your reader with something to remember and think about by employing this strategy, as the following examples illustrate:

When the pesticide plant burned down, the small town was left with unused buildings, serious unemployment, and a fourth of its citizens dead.

To be a professional athlete, one needs great physical skills, courage, intelligence, and, perhaps most of all, an unflinching desire to succeed.



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Tuesday, 12-Jun-2012 12:18:45 PDT
Tuesday, 12-Jun-2012 12:18:45 PDT