Grammar Writing Techniques 2018-08-28 00:00

Why be Perpendicular When You Can be Parallel?


Bob Dorough wrote “Three Is A Magic Number” for the first episode of Schoolhouse Rock in 1973. The song is a point personified. Everything points to three being the magic number.

The past and the present and the future

The beginning and the middle and the end

The heart and the brain and the body

As the song says, you get three as a magic number. But what you also get is a perfect example of parallel structure.

  1. Parallel Structure Defined
  2. Perpendicular Structure
  3. Parallel Resumes
  4. Keep it Parallel

Parallel Structure Defined

Parallel structure is using a certain pattern to show equal weight among two or more items. While sometimes redundancy is bad, parallel structure uses redundancy to add weight to list items.

In “Three is a Magic Number” Bob Dorough used parallel structure to equally weight each item in the verse:

The past and the present and the future

The lyric wouldn’t have the same weight if Dorough left off “the” each time.

Perpendicular Structure

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 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!

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