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March 27, 2018

Writing Craft Master Lists: Filling in the Blanks—Parallelism

Pen poised to write on a blank page with text: Filling in the Blanks of Our Writing Knowledge

A few weeks ago, I shared my series of huge mega-posts listing every writing craft skill I could think of for story development, line editing, and copy editing.

We can use those lists to learn drafting skills, self-editing skills, and evaluating skills (for freelance editors). But before I offer them as downloadable checklists for everyone—so we can keep track of our educational progress—I want to make sure these lists are as complete as possible.

So let me know…:

  • Are any skills missing from my lists?
  • Or do any need more explanation?

On that second bullet, I’m always looking for post ideas, so I doubly appreciate questions about any skills listed. In fact, let’s continue this series to “fill in the blanks” on our craft education:

Today, we’re filling in more blanks in our knowledge by talking about a skill addressed on both the Line Editing and Copy Editing Master Lists: What are parallel sentence constructions, how can we use parallelism to strengthen our writing, and how should we fix parallel structure problems?

(And be sure to let me know if you have questions about other skills. With your help, we can create this mega-resource together. *smile*)

Filling in the Blanks: Parallelisms

First of all, we need to define this skill: What the heck are parallel sentence constructions?

Parallel sentence constructions are sentences that use repeating/similar elements or grammatically symmetrical words/phrases/clauses.

*waits* *crickets* Clear as mud, right? *grin*

Parallelisms Are Patterns

Parallel structures are all about patterns. Patterns make sentences easier to read and give sentences rhythm and style. Pattern recognition also makes sentences with parallel structures more memorable.

In other words, parallel sentences strengthen our writing by:

  • improving sentence readability
  • adding rhythm and style
  • creating memorable sentences
  • varying sentence structure
  • avoiding grammar mistakes

The easiest way to understand parallelisms is to see examples. Take a look at those bullet points. See how each one starts with an *ing verb? That’s one form of parallelism.

Imagine if one of those bullet points was worded as:

  • to create memorable sentences

Know what parallelism is? Or how to find and fix parallelism errors? Click To TweetThat to create would be clunky in the middle of all those improving, adding, varying, and avoiding words (not to mention be grammatically incorrect, given the introductory phrase). We’d create a speed bump in readers’ minds.

Not every parallelism glitch creates a grammar issue (sometimes it’s just a matter of missing a chance to strengthen our writing) But let’s dig deeper into the different types of parallel structures and check out more examples…

Parallelism with Grammar Forms

Like we showed above, one type of parallel structure is to ensure that when we’re listing or comparing elements, we’re using the same type of grammatical structure for words, phrases/clauses, or sentences.

  • She wanted to go hiking and camping.
    (Not: She wanted to go on a hike and camping. — This mixes a prepositional phrase and a gerund.)
  • She talked to a doctor, a nurse, and her aunt.
    (Not: She talked to a doctor, a nurse, and put a scarf on her aunt. — This mixes a verb phrase in a list of nouns.)
  • After work, she rode her bike, visited her neighbors, and played with her dog.
    (Not: After work, she rode her bike, visited her neighbors, and was playing with her dog. — This mixes simple past tense verbs with a progressive past tense verb.)
  • Jumping, skipping, and running are exercises she learned as a child.
    (Not: Jumping, skipping, and an occasional run are exercises she learned as a child. — This mixes gerunds (verbs acting as nouns) with a non-gerund noun phrase.)

In other words, we can mix different nouns (or verbs, prepositional phrases, or whatever) in the same parallel structure, but we couldn’t mix those different types of grammar elements for the same function in a sentence and still have parallelism.

Parallelism with Prepositions

When we’re creating parallel structures, we have to be consistent with whether each of our phrases have their own preposition or if they’re all sharing one.

Usually a sentence will read tighter if the parallel elements share a preposition:

  • She likes to hike and camp.
    (Wordier: She likes to hike and to camp.)

However, some sentences are so convoluted that each symmetrical element needs its own preposition for readers to recognize the pattern of the parallelism:

  • She likes to hike when the moon is full and the trails are visible and to camp when the moon is new and the stars are bright.

Without that symmetrical preposition, readers might parse the parallelism as:

  • She likes to hike…when the moon is full…and when the trails are visible…and when camp when *record scratch* Wait, what?

Parallelism with Articles

Similarly, parallel structures can either share a single article or include a separate article for each symmetrical element.

  • She went to a park, a store, and a neighbor’s house. —OR—
  • She went to a park, store, and neighbor’s house.
    (Not: She went to a park, store, and a neighbor’s house.)

If the elements need different articles (the, a, an) or possessive pronoun (his, her, my, its, their), we need to give each element their own identifier. (For example: She talked to a doctor, a nurse, and her aunt.)

Parallelism with Pairs

Some types of sentences include paired elements that sound stronger and more rhythmic when symmetrical.

  • If she stays, then he goes.
  • She not only likes him but also loves him.
  • She’ll either go to the store or go to the movies.

With some of those paired structures, we run into grammatical issues if we misplace the first paired element, as the “shared” words won’t line up symmetrically:

  • She likes not only the dog but also the cat.
    (Not: She not only likes the dog but also the cat.)
  • She’ll go to either the store or the movies.
    (Not: She’ll either go to the store or the movies.)

In both of those “what not to do” sentences, the second comparison element is missing a verb, as it’s grammatically inside the first comparison element.

Parallelism with Comparisons

When comparing or linking two elements, ensure the clauses or phrases are symmetrical.

  • She would rather earn a salary than pay a debt.
    (Not: She would rather earn a salary than a debt. — This structure is missing a verb for the second comparison element, and she’s not “earning” a debt.)
  • She liked skiing just as much as she liked skating.
    (Not: She liked skiing just as much as she liked to skate.)
  • Being a true friend means being loyal to each other.
    (Not: Being a true friend means to be loyal to each other.)

How Can We Find and Fix Parallelism Errors?

Most parallel structures are built off certain words:

  • conjunctions (the FANBOYS: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so)
  • paired ideas (if…then, not only…but also, either…or, neither…nor, both…and)
  • comparison words (more/better/less/worse/rather…than, as…as
  • linking verbs (is, means)

When we find those words in our writing, we can mentally convert our sentence into bullet points and check for parallel structure:

  • After work, she rode her bike, visited her neighbors, and played with her dog.
    — converts into —
    After work, she…

    • rode her bike,
    • visited her neighbors, and
    • played with her dog.

    Check! They all match with simple past tense verbs. *smile*

  • She’ll either go to the store or the movies.
    — converts into —
    She’ll either…

    • go to the store or
    • the movies.

    Uh-oh! The “go to” is misplaced inside the first comparison element and needs to be moved outside (where both elements can share the verb), or the second comparison element needs its own verb (She’ll either go to the store or watch a movie).

When we find errors, we need to fix one of the issues discussed above, depending on the type of parallelism:

  • inconsistent grammar forms
  • non-symmetrical usage of prepositions or articles
  • misplaced paired words or inconsistent forms
  • missing words in comparisons or inconsistent forms

Why Do We Need to Understand Parallelism?

In addition to avoiding grammatical errors and making our writing clearer and easier for readers to parse, parallel structure strengthens our writing in two major ways…

#1: Improve Our Writing’s Rhythm and Style

The symmetry of parallel structures is pleasing to the ear, so our writing automatically sounds more professional if our sentences are symmetrical or parallel. Parallelism also helps us use several rhetorical devices.

Each of the following techniques wouldn’t be nearly as effective (or wouldn’t work at all) if the example from that post lacked parallel structure:

  • Polysyndeton: Adding more conjunctions than necessary, dragging out a list:
    “The girl argued and quarreled and whined and begged, but nothing changed her parents’ minds.”
  • Asyndeton: Omitting conjunctions to create an emotion:
    “The dark skies filled her with despair, with longing, with loneliness.”
  • Commoratio: Repeating an idea with different words:
    “She was doomedFinishedDead.”
  • Anaphora: Repeating a word or phrase at the beginning of two or more phrases or sentences in a row:
    He’d never believe her. He’d never trust her. He’d never love her again.”
  • Epistrophe: The opposite of anaphora, repeating the end of phrase:
    “She would die. He would die. They’d all die.”
  • Anadiplosis: Repeating the end of one sentence at the beginning of the next, as exemplified by Yoda:
    “Fear leads to angerAnger leads to hateHate leads to suffering.”
  • Zeugma: Using an out-of-sync phrase for a humorous last item of a list:
    “Before meeting up with her boss, she grabbed her project list, her accomplishments list, and her big-girl panties.”

Notice the consistency in each example: using all simple past tense verbs, usage of the preposition with, etc.

In addition to the repeating end/beginning words, Yoda’s saying is stronger for taking advantage of the repeating leads to element. And even the “out of sync” phrase in the last example still uses a consistent “her”-adjective-noun construction.

#2: Improve Our Writing’s Impact

Some writers think all repetition is bad and try to mix up phrases or clauses, but parallelism is often preferable for readability and impact.

Compare these two sentences shared as examples at Study.com:

  • I came to this place to see, and after I saw, I conquered it.
  • I came, I saw, I conquered.

Even though the first sentence is grammatically correct, its prioritization of variety over parallelism means the sentence isn’t nearly as memorable or strong.

The link above also shared the following well-known literary examples:

  • What you see is what you get. (The “what you” plus a short verb is repeated.)
  • When the going gets tough, the tough get going. (The “going gets tough” phrase is repeated so that it sounds similar, and yet by flipping around the order of the words, the meaning changes.)
  • Nothing ventured, nothing gained. (The “nothing” plus a verb is repeated.)
  • Easy come, easy go. (The “easy” plus a short verb is repeated.)

None of those sayings would be nearly as memorable without the parallelism.

Need more examples? Check out this page at the Purdue Online Writing Lab or this one at Towson University’s Online Writing Support.

The better we understand parallel structures, the stronger we can make our writing. Sentences with clean parallel construction can feel tighter, have a stronger rhythm, and be more memorable. All of those traits encourage readers to keep turning the pages of our stories. *smile*

Can you think of any skills I’ve missed for the Master Lists? Do you have questions or need more explanation for any of the skills? Had you heard of parallelism before, or were any of these rules new to you? Do the examples here help you understand parallel sentence structures? Do you have any questions about how to find or fix parallel construction issues?

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Sieran Lane
Sieran Lane

Nice! I struggle with this kind of sentence: “I want a hyena, kangaroo, and a cheetah.”
Grammatically, I know it should be: “I want a hyena, kangaroo, and cheetah.” But something in my minds keeps pulling me to this: “I want a hyena, kangaroo, and a cheetah.”

This problem is similar to how sometimes, I know I should use the past tense, but I really want to use the present tense. Or vice versa.

Do you get annoying moments where your logical side wants to do one thing, but your emotional side wants to do another?

Oh my! I love your point that repeating words can be effective and memorable for famous sayings. I recently made up my own saying: “When you get desperate, you get smart.” 😀 So yeah, I don’t need to worry about being repetitive here, lol.

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