Parallelism is when two or more phrases or clauses have a similar grammatical structure. While the concept may sound tricky, it’s actually quite easy to execute… and makes your writing easy to read when done correctly!
Let’s take a look at an example of parallelism done incorrectly, then break down what needs to happen for it to be fixed:
- Incorrect: To get ready for my trip, I needed to pack, call my bank, and taking out money from the ATM.
Taking out does not follow the same structure as the other parts of the list, so the above sentence does not demonstrate proper parallel structure.
- Correct: To get ready for my trip, I needed to pack, call my bank, and take out money from the ATM.
“Mixed construction” is a fancy way to say that your sentence doesn’t make sense. A mixed construction happens when you start a sentence with one construction and finish it with another one.
At their most basic level, sentences have a subject and a predicate. In a mixed construction sentence, the predicate doesn’t match the subject.
Let’s take a look at that in practice:
- Incorrect: Writers, creating manuscripts, require a lot of editing.
The predicate require a lot of editing relates to manuscripts, not to writers.
Here are two correct ways to re-write that sentence:
- Correct: Writers create manuscripts. Manuscripts require a lot of editing.
- Correct: Writers create manuscripts, which require a lot of editing.
In essence, parallelism is about using repetition and rhythm to emphasize your ideas. It makes your sentences flow and roll off your readers’ tongues easily and concisely. Look at the following sentences.
- Whether at home, at work, or at the shelter, Amy put others’ best interests first.
- My college professor encouraged me to pay attention to parallelism and to identify other literary devices in literature.
- Neither Mark’s mother nor his sisters ever noticed he was extremely bashful around women, frightfully tongue-tied when speaking, and painfully inept at small talk.
Parallelism in Literature
You can see from the above examples that parallelism uses the same sentence constructs like nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc. for their rhythm and repetition. One of the most famous uses of this device in literature is the opening sentence of Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities.
- “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”
Parallelism in English
Beyond literature, however, parallelism makes your content and copy resonate with readers. For examples of what not to do, consider how the following examples jar your comprehension.
- Consumers must learn to spot inconsistencies in product descriptions, to understand the differences in specs, and should know when to avoid certain e-commerce sites at all costs.
- Marketers are masters at creating campaigns that result in conversions, investing in avenues that offer the biggest return on investment, and to be ready for winning marketing strategies.
- A CIO’s everyday schedule includes staying abreast of new technology, determining how new technology can help their company achieve goals, and that questions would be asked by Board members.
Whoa, some of these are incredibly jarring. Can you spot why?
In the first example, the sentence uses prepositional phrases starting with “to” and a verb, except for the last phrase which throws the reader off rhythm. The second sentence is very similar because it uses “-ing” verbs in the series, only to finish with a “be” verb different from the rest. Finally, the last sentence uses “-ing” verbs to project action but finishes up with a passive verb, which is like fingernails on the proverbial chalkboard.
How to spot faulty parallelism.
Faulty parallelism is when you don’t use the repetition and rhythm of similar sentence constructs, like in the previous examples that jarred the senses. So how do you spot it in your work?
First, pay particular attention to conjunctions. Search your content for and, but, or, for, nor, so, and yet. Make sure you construct the elements used in each of your sentence’s phrases or clauses that follow conjunctions in same way. For example, use “verb + adjective + object” or some other structure.
Always check bulleted lists to make sure they follow the same construction. If the first item in your list starts with an “-ing” verb, all the other bullet points should start this way, too. For example:
- Checking each sentence for conjunctions.
- Making sure bullet points start with an “-ing” verb.
- Paying attention to words, phrases, or clauses in a series.
When you’re not parallel, you’re perpendicular. Or something like that. For our purposes, perpendicular structure will represent broken parallel structure.
Misused words ending in -ing often break parallel structure. For example, note this sentence:
- Phil enjoys eating, talking, and jokes.
While the sentence works, it exhibits perpendicular structure. The final list item is missing a word ending in -ing. To emphasize each list item equally, the sentence can be corrected this way:
- Phil enjoys eating, talking, and making jokes.
or, even simpler:
- Phil enjoys eating, talking, and joking.
Improperly used verbs are another way to identify perpendicular structure. For example:
- While in Tokyo, we ate sushi, drank sake, and speak Japanese.
This series is perpendicular due to the present-tense verb “speak”. To make the sentence parallel, all of the verbs should use past-tense verbs:
- While in Tokyo we ate sushi, drank sake, and spoke Japanese.
Parallel structure in resumes.
Parallel structure shows up in other ways, not just list items within a sentence. One often overlooked place parallel structure is important is in your resume.
The bullet points used to describe someone’s work experience should always be parallel. When they’re perpendicular, bullet points stand out in a terrible way. For example, this resume uses perpendicular structure:
- Managed a team of ten with weekly one-to-one reports.
- Creates an annual budget and sticks to it.
- Report to shareholders in a timely matter.
This resume can easily be made parallel by fixing the leading verbs, maintaining the same tense throughout:
- Managed a team of ten with weekly one-to-one reports.
- Created an annual budget and stuck to it.
- Reported to shareholders in a timely matter.
Keep it parallel.
Parallel structure is a vital tool for all writers. When structure is parallel, the reader’s flow is uninterrupted. When structure is perpendicular, the reader is thrown off and the content weakened.
If you still have doubts, remember Bob Dorough’s classic example of parallel structure here!