Parallel structure can add style and emphasis to your writing. But if you get it wrong your reader will hear a loud, off-key ‘klang’ in their head.
To write with a parallel structure means using the same pattern to connect two or more ideas with the same level of importance.
Here’s a simple example of parallel structure:
- Freddy likes watching football, playing football and talking about football.
“Watching,” “playing” and “talking” are all applied to Freddy’s enjoyment of football – with equal weight. Vs. “Freddy likes watching football but really prefers to play it.”
This structure is not parallel – the gerund structure (using the “-ing” version of a verb) is not used for “play.” And his appreciation of football is not the same – a distinction is drawn.
Problems come when you try to write in parallel but don’t quite get it right. Like:
- Freddy likes watching football, playing football and to talk about it.
We break the pattern in the last section – “to talk” instead of “talking.”
These are simple examples and easy to catch; grammar software identifies them with a squiggly line. But more complex sentences can break their parallel structure without it being so clear.
Here’s a more complicated example:
- Shannon wanted to go on a kayaking trip, but she didn’t save any money so her parents said she needed to be saving money first before she booked the trip.
This one is more subtle. If you read it out loud the sentence will sound a bit awkward and convoluted. “She didn’t save money” and “she booked the trip” are parallel, but the use of a progressive verb phrase in the middle ruins its parallel structure (she needed to be saving) makes it not parallel.
Here’s a more parallel version:
- Shannon wanted to go on a kayaking trip, but she didn’t save any money so her parents said she needed to save money first before deciding to book the trip.
Lists after colons are another area of potential trouble:
- If you visit Texas you can do all sorts of things: hike one of the most remote National Parks at Big Bend, hear some of the best live music in the world in Austin, and learning about the universe at the McDonald Observatory.
- If you visit Texas you can do all sorts of things: hike one of the most remote National Parks at Big Bend, hear some of the best live music in the world in Austin, or learn about the universe at the McDonald Observatory.
What’s the point of all this? Using parallel structure helps emphasize your point. It helps you vary sentence structure and create a rhythm for your reader – keeping them engaged and making your writing more lyrical and powerful. Consider these famous examples of parallel structure:
- “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.”
- Martin Luther King, Jr.
- “Then practice losing farther, losing faster: places, and names, and where it was you meant to travel. None of these will bring disaster.”
- Elizabeth Bishop
- “My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
- John F. Kennedy
- “Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof / Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth”
- lyrics by Pharrell Williams
- “My fellow citizens: I stand here today humbled by the task before us, grateful for the trust you have bestowed, mindful of the sacrifices borne by our ancestors.”
- Barack Obama
- “You deserve to need me, not to have me.”
- Augusten Burroughs
- “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
- Neil Armstrong
So don’t be afraid! Experiment with parallelism. Your readers will appreciate you trying something new stylistically, you’ll vary sentence structure and, if you pick an important point, you’ll draw attention to a crucial part of your writing.
Just remember to proofread. Some tips:
- Read a paragraph of sentence out loud – your ears are good at detecting broken patterns.
- For complicated sentences, take out the individual chunks that are trying to be in parallel and put them in columns. Edit to make verbs become the same tense and construction (______ing vs. “to ______”, for instance).
- Look for “and” and “or” in your paper and make sure the phrases on either side are parallel.