Imagine trying to make your way on the monkey bars in the playground, but one of the long poles was a foot lower than the other. While interesting, it would be quite a challenge, no doubt leaving you will a back ache and an especially sore arm.
Or imagine a gymnast working on the parallel bars – only side to side, not facing forward.
Just as geometrical shapes have an elegance and logic to them, so too do your sentences need to be elegant, well-structured, and logical. Take the Pythagorean theorem, for example. Which of the following “theorems” would be more challenging to work on?
Non-parallel sentences might not be as interesting as unbalanced monkey bars or wonky geometrical shapes, but they are a challenge for your reader.
Definition of parallel structure
Parallel structure is using the same type of verb/noun/syntax/diction in the same sentence or group of sentences.
You might have heard it called parallelism or parallel construction. Simply put, parallel structure makes your writing clearer and therefore your reader’s job easier.
Let’s start with some examples of nonparallel structure, what’s wrong with them, and how to fix them.
But let’s assume that all Diane wanted to do was prune the grapevines, not pick them. How would we modify the sentence to reflect this?
If your nouns want to share a verb (such as “picked”), they must exclude all other nouns that don’t need the same verb:
“Diane picked cherries and apples, and pruned grapevines.”
Watch how adding the word “and” to the following two sentences will help your readers understand what you’re trying to say:
- “I’m studying law, economics, biology, and working all at the same time.”
Try: “I’m studying law, economics, and biology, and I’m also working.”
2. “She’s a gardener, pool hall owner, and mothers her children exceptionally well.”
Try: “She’s a gardener and pool hall owner, and mothers her children exceptionally well.”
3. “I am writing a blog, a journal, and have written a memoir.” (Here we have the same verb, but two different forms of it: “am writing” and “have written.”)
Try: “I am writing a blog and a journal, and I have written a memoir.”
Restructure the offending sentence
There are other types of nonparallel sentences that beg for reworking. Read the following, and their alternatives:
1. “He wants a million dollars, a house on Park Avenue, and to read the Wall Street Journal all day.”
2. She carefully and with patience opened the gift. (Use either two adverbs or two adverbial phrases, not one of each.)
Try: “She carefully and patiently opened the gift.”
3. “Sit down here, or you can go out to play.” (First clause uses a command, while the second does not.)
Try: “Sit down here or go out to play.” Or “You can sit down here or you can go out to play.” Your choice here will depend on what mood you are trying to get across.
Liberate yourself from the obvious
You can certainly be creative with your sentences; no need to copy me. Parallel structure doesn’t mean that you need to stay with one sentence, nor does it mean you need to keep the exact same verbs. Liberate yourself from any writing straitjackets you’ve convinced yourself have to be given their due. How about the following:
- “I’m studying law, economics, and biology. I’m working as well.” Here, I’m using all gerund/participles (“ing” words), but I divided my information into two sentences. (Did you notice I used nonparallel structure in the previous sentence? Did it work or not? Would you have written it differently?)
- “She’s a gardener, a pool hall owner, and an exceptional mother.” Here, I restructured the sentence so the verb “is” would cover all three nouns.
- “I wrote a memoir last year, and this year I am writing both a blog post a journal.” Here, I switched the order of the clauses and changed the verb forms.
- “If he had a million dollars he could live on Park Avenue as well as read the Wall Street Journal all day.” If I had written “…he could live on Park Avenue and read the Wall Street Journal all day,” you might have thought he could live on Park Avenue all day. Therefore, I substituted “as well as” for “and.”
Bottom line: Keep your readers uppermost in your mind. How can you help them understand your prose better?
Help your reader hear correctly
Parallel structure applies to all parts of speech and to all types of sentence structure. It also influences how the reader hears your sentences in his or her mind.
Consider how jarring the following examples are:
- “I came, I saw, I conquered. You are going, hearing, and losing.” In this example, you’re trying to create a mood. However, although you have two sentences, the rhythm is all wrong because the way you’ve structured your idea begs parallel sentences. Try “You went, you heard, and you lost” for the second sentence, and see how much better and impactful it sounds.
- “Henry grew up in the poorest section of town, he bought his groceries with food stamps, and I’m going to Harvard.” This is what I call a “Do you walk to school or do you carry your lunch” sentence. The fact that you have two different types of verbs here (past and gerund/participle) is the least of your problems. Let’s assume you’re trying to create a parallel between being poor and going to an elite university that stands for wealth and blue blood. That’s fine, but you must employ logical connections and transitions. Don’t assume your readers have ESP. You are the only one who probably understands your own thought process in this sentence.
- “O, thou, rose, the sweetest-smelling flower, nectar of the gods. You rock!” If you want to sound like Shakespeare (or anyone else, for that matter), you need to be consistent.
- “Merrily we roll along, and we choose our destination haphazardly.” Here, you want to keep verbs and pronouns in the same place on both sides of the comma. You could say either “Merrily we roll along, and haphazardly we choose our destination” or “We roll along merrily and we choose our destination haphazardly.”
- “She’d like to make biscuits, cookies, and whoopee.” The problem here is that two of your objects are physical nouns, while the third is more of a physical act or concept. Doesn’t work, unless you are going for the cool, poetic, or ironic. Otherwise, keep your objects in the same class.
Visualize your sentence
Keeping a visual picture of your sentence in mind when you are constructing a complex one will go a long way toward achieving parallel structure. As an example, I found the following quote from Winston Churchill, which embodies sophisticated parallelism. I will cite it here, then break it down with a chart.
“The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings; the inherent virtue of socialism is the equal sharing of miseries.”
Here’s what the sentence looks like deconstructed:
|The inherent||vice||of capitalism||is the unequal sharing||of blessings|
|the inherent||virtue||of socialism||is the equal sharing||of miseries|
Observe how beautifully everything lines up here, and notice how sometimes Churchill’s parallel words are the same and sometimes they are the exact opposite.
Now let’s take a nonparallel sentence and see if we can fix it up using a chart:
“Books such as the classics and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn are required reading in some English departments.”
Here there are two issues of imbalance: “the classics” and the name of a book are not parallel, and the former is plural while the latter is singular. The chart below gives you a few choices to balance the sentence. You can probably come up with more:
|Books such as||the classics||and||A Tree Grows in Brooklyn||are required reading|
|Older classics||as well as||modern classics||are required reading|
|You are required to read||both classic||and||modern||literature|
|Books such as||Beowulf||and||A Tree Grows in Brooklyn||are required reading|
|Classics such as||Beowulf||and||A Tree Grows in Brooklyn||are required reading|
The more you’re aware of the need for parallel structure, the easier it will be for you to spot and prevent problems when you sit down to write.
I found this sentence in a book I was reading on Kindle: “His hair was thinning on top and gray around the ears.”
Now, I know the author was trying to tell us that his hair hadn’t yet finished thinning out on top (gerund-participles demonstrate continuous action), while it was completely gray around the ears (simple adjectives imply a done deal), but I would have preferred either “His hair was thinning on top and graying around the ears” or “His hair was thin around the top and gray around the ears.” I would have sacrificed the exact truth (it was fiction, after all) for parallel structure, or broken the phrases into two separate sentences.
But that’s just me.
What would you have done, or not have done?
This week, see if you can spot nonparallel structure in your or others’ writing, then tell me about it in the Comments below.