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16.4 Using Parallelism

Learning Objectives

  1. Recognize lack of parallelism.
  2. Present paired ideas in parallel format.
  3. Present items in a series in parallel format.

ParallelismThe presentation of like-weighted ideas in the same grammatical fashion. is the presentation of ideas of equal weight in the same grammatical fashion. It’s one of those features of writing that’s a matter of grammar, style, rhetoric, and content. Used well, it can enhance your readers’ (and even your own) understanding and appreciation of a topic. The most famous line from John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address provides another example (a specific kind of reversal of phrasing known as antimetaboleA specific kind of parallelism involving the repetition and reversal of elements of a phrase.): “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” You’ll encounter parallelism not only in politics but in advertising, religion, and poetry as well:

  • “Strong enough for a man, but made for a woman.”
  • “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”
  • “Some say the world will end in fire, / Some say in ice.”

Here are a couple of examples of sentences in need of parallelism.

Example 1

While it was raining, I had to run into the grocery store, the dry cleaners, and stop at the bookstore.

This sentence is not parallel because it includes three equally weighted ideas but presents two of them with action verbs and one without. By simply adding words such as “duck into” to the middle item, the sentence becomes parallel: While it was raining, I had to run into the grocery store, duck into the dry cleaners, and stop at the bookstore.

You could also correct this sentence by removing “stop at” from the third idea: While it was raining, I had to run into the grocery store, the dry cleaners, and the book store.

Example 2

The test was long and requiring skills we hadn’t learned.

This sentence is not parallel because it presents two like-weighted ideas using two different grammatical formats. Here is a parallel version:

The test was long and required skills we hadn’t learned.

Parallelism is most often an issue with paired ideas and items in a series as shown in the preceding two examples. A key idea to keep in mind is that you need to use common wording with both items, such as common articles (e.g., the, a, an) and common prepositions (e.g., by, for, of, on, to). The next two subsections provide more in-depth discussion of these two concepts.

Making Paired Items Parallel

In a sentence, paired items or ideas are often connected with either a comparative expressionA phrase that connects two ideas within a sentence (e.g., easier than, taller than). (e.g., easier than, as much as, bigger than), a coordinated conjunction (e.g., and, but, for, nor, or, so, yet), or a correlative conjunction (e.g., both…and, either…or, just as…so, neither…nor, not…but, not only…but also, whether…or). Read the following error examples. Think of a way to correct each sentence. Then look below the error to see possible corrections. Note that you can usually correct each error in more than one way.

Example 1

Comparative Expression

Our neighbor’s house is bigger than the size of our house.

Possible Corrections:

Our neighbor’s house is bigger than our house.

OR

The size of our neighbor’s house is bigger than the size of our house.

Example 2

Coordinated Conjunction

Louie, my crazy shih tzu loves running after Frisbees and plays with leaves.

Possible Corrections:

Louie, my crazy shih tzu, loves running after Frisbees and playing with leaves.

OR

Louie, my crazy shih tzu, loves to run after Frisbees and to play with leaves.

Example 3

Correlative Conjunction

Not only was he rude, but also ate all the shrimp balls.

Possible Corrections:

Not only was he rude, but also he ate all the shrimp balls.

OR

Not only was he rude, but he also ate all the shrimp balls.

Making Items in a Series Parallel

Items in a series include ideas embedded in a sentence as well as those in numbered or bulleted lists. One way to check for parallelism is to say the sentence stem that precedes the first item and then, one at a time, add each subsequent series item to the stem. Assuming the stem works with the first item, subsequent items that do not work with the stem are not parallel with the first item.

Example

After I get off work, I’m driving to the gym, doing five miles, and weights.

Stem prior to the first item: After I get off work, I’m…

Stem works with the first item: After I get off work, I’m driving to the gym.

Stem works with the second item: After I get off work, I’m doing five miles.

Stem does not work with the third item: After I get off work, weights.

A version of the sentence that is parallel: After I get off work, I’m driving to the gym, running five miles, and lifting weights.

Now stem does work with the third item: After I get off work, I’m lifting weights.

Read the two error examples and imagine how you could correct each one. Then check below the error for possible corrections.

Error Example 1

Embedded Series

On Saturday, my roommates and I are playing in a game of pick-up basketball, collecting coats for charity, work on our homework for three hours, and go to a party in the Village.

Possible Corrections:

On Saturday, my roommates and I are going to play in a game of pick-up basketball, collect coats for charity, spend three hours on homework, and go to a party in the Village.

OR

On Saturday, my roommates and I are playing in a game of pick-up basketball, collecting coats for charity, spending three hours on homework, and going to a party in the Village.

Error Example 2

Listed Series

The people I have met since starting college include the following:

  • Sarah Winston
  • Joe Fuller, a guy from the Chicago area
  • Adam Merce and Donna Taylor
  • Ian Messing from England
  • and CaLinda Harris, whom I met in math class

Possible Corrections:

The people I have met since starting college include the following:

  • Sarah Winston
  • Joe Fuller
  • Adam Merce
  • Donna Taylor
  • Ian Messing
  • CaLinda Harris

OR

The people I have met since starting college include the following:

  • Sarah Winston from near Toledo
  • Joe Fuller from the Chicago area
  • Adam Merce from Littleton
  • Donna Taylor from Littleton
  • Ian Messing from England
  • CaLinda Harris from Morris, Indiana

Utilizing Parallel Structure

If you take the most impressive or startling item in a series and place it last, you can draw attention to it as well as to the whole series. Look at the difference in the following two sentences.

Most impressive item last: In the accident, he received cuts on his face, a mild concussion, a cracked rib, and a ruptured spleen.

Most impressive item buried within the series: In the accident, he received cuts on his face, a ruptured spleen, a cracked rib, and a mild concussion.

Using like or paired words along with ideas you are comparing can help you emphasize the comparison.

Example with like words: It’s unusual to feel intense attraction and intense repulsion for the same person.

Example with paired words: You always seem to run to guitar lessons and crawl to piano lessons.

Key Takeaways

  • Parallelism refers to common grammatical treatment of like-weighted items within a series.
  • Parallelism is also a rhetorical and stylistic technique for arranging ideas in a pleasing and effective way.
  • Paired ideas within a sentence should be parallel.
  • Ideas within a series should be parallel whether embedded in a sentence or listed vertically.
  • In almost all situations, more than one possible method exists for making a sentence or list parallel.

Exercises

  1. Indicate whether relevant parts of each sentence are parallel. Then rewrite the problem sentences to make them parallel.

    1. Even though I don’t get paid as much, working in the psychology office is more meaningful than working at the fast food restaurant.
    2. According to Lester, both going to a movie and midnight bowling are still being considered.
    3. Abby, the attorney, and the child advocate named Becca held a meeting before the whole group arrived.
    4. I have already packed casual pants, my favorite casual tops, dress pants, dress tops, some socks, plenty of underwear, and three pairs of shoes.
    5. Some must-see sites in Texas include the following:

      • the Alamo in San Antonio
      • the Riverwalk, which is also in San Antonio
      • Big Bend
      • Schlitterbaum Water Park that kids love so much
      • King Ranch
      • South Padre Island
  2. Write a sentence telling what you did this past weekend. Include an embedded series or a list in your sentence and make sure the items are parallel.
  3. Write a sentence comparing two college classes. Make sure the comparison items are parallel.
  4. With your writing group or on your own, find at least three examples of parallelism in advertising, politics, or religious texts. Be prepared to discuss why and how parallelism is used in these kinds of discourse.