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Parallelism

 

Parallelism, part 1

 

Parallelism allows you to show order and clarity and rhythm in a sentence, a paragraph, a section, or a whole document by putting elements that have the same function in the same grammatical form. It creates a sense of balance and provides a sense of the relative importance of pieces of information. Parallelism is required in lists and series; in compound structures; in every kind of comparison, including those using than or as; and in contrasting elements.

 

Parallel structures may be as simple as groups of single words (nouns, adjectives, verbs, etc.) or as complicated as groups of phrases or clauses within a sentence or headings within a document. Sometimes the parallel structures appear as pairs, sometimes as lists or series. They are usually connected with and, but, or, or nor. Now let’s see what they look like.

In the examples that follow, the elements that should be parallel are bolded.

 

Parallel Words: Depression and belligerence are behaviors that many abused children exhibit.

**Note: In this sentence the parallel elements are both nouns that function as the subject of the sentence. So they have to be in the same grammatical form .

 

In addition to single words, phrases (like prepositional phrases, verbal phrases, and noun phrases) can also be parallel structures in sentences.

 

Prepositional phrase: In love as in war, no holds are barred.

**Note: In this case the parallel elements are connected by as (which indicates a comparison). Be careful, though, because as isn’t always used to compare. It sometimes does other things.

Infinitive phrase: I couldn’t decide whether to pay my rent, to buy food, or to go to the movies.

 

Noun phrase: He had no time for school, no money for fun.

**Note: In the example above, the parallel elements are joined by a comma which indicates that a word, and, is left out.

 

Clauses (groups of words that contain a subject and a verb) can also be parallel elements in sentences.

 

Dependent Clauses: Michiko told the judge that she had been pulled out of a line of fast-moving traffic and that she had a perfect driving record.

Independent Clauses: In matters of principle, stand like a rock; in matters of taste, swim with the current.

**Note: In the preceding example, the two independent clauses are joined by a semi-colon which indicates that the two clauses are equally important in meaning and which also indicates that the coordinating conjunction (in this case and) has been left out.

 

You may want to pause here and complete exercise 1 and exercise 2.

 

Parallelism, part 2

 

As a writer, you might have problems with parallelism (most of us do from time to time) if you don’t put parallel structures in parallel form. When that happens, your reader often ends up being confused, and you lose the benefits of clarity, order, and rhythm that parallelism offers you.

 

In the following examples, writers have failed to put parallel elements in parallel form. An improved version follows each example. The parallel elements are bolded.

 

Faulty: Her complaints were boring, childish, and showed how ignorant she was.

 

Improved: Her complaints were boring, childish, and ignorant.

 

**Note: The conjunction (connecting word) and indicates that the underlined elements are equal in importance and function within the sentence and so should be parallel in grammatical form (in this case, they are all adjectives which describe the noun complaints). Notice how much clearer, more emphatic and rhythmic the sentence is when the parallelism is right!


Faulty: She worked late in the evening not only to catch up on her studies, but also writing her paper.

 

Improved: She worked hard late in the evening not only to catch up on her studies, but also to write her paper.

 

**Note: In this example, the correlative not only . . . but also. . . indicates a parallel structure that requires parallel form (in this case, the infinitive phrases to catch up on her studies and to write her paper.)

After part two, we recommend completing exercise 3. A list of all exercises to test your understanding of parallelism can be found here.