Writing Tips: 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:
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:
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:
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":
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.
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.
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:
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:
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:
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.
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.
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
Here, the second and third "in" aren't needed since they're the same as the first lead-in word
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
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.
Notice how a problem with the lead-ins causes the following sentence to become not only unclear but incorrect, too:
Did Superman really appear on films and on comic books? How about trying it this way:
In many instances, where the lead-in ends and the list begins is a judgment call. Take the following sentence, for example:
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:
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.
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:
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