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Parallelism: match structures to make your writing flow

By Mary Morel | February 2018

Parallelism, often called parallel structure, refers to matching structures in a pair or series of related words, phrases, or clauses.

When parallelism is used for effect, the writing can be powerful. For example:

‘Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.’
T.S. Eliot, ‘Philip Massinger’

‘Today’s students can put dope in their veins or hope in their brains. If they can conceive it and believe it, they can achieve it. They must know it is not their aptitude but their attitude that will determine their altitude.’
Jesse Jackson

When your writing lacks parallel structures, it doesn’t flow well. In traditional grammar, this is known as faulty parallelism.

Take this example:

This strategic plan provided a basis to engage with stakeholders and ensure consultation meetings met the needs of the organisation, and provide a platform to develop a sound governance framework.

Lack of parallelism sometimes occurs because the sentence is long and the writer has lost track of what came earlier. In this example, the writer could break the sentence into two.

This strategic plan provided a basis to engage with stakeholders and ensure consultation meetings met the needs of the organisation. It also provided a platform to develop a sound governance framework.

Lack of parallelism with verbs
Verbs are often the culprit as in the example above. Another example is:

When travelling, I like to dine at fine restaurants and visiting museums.

This should read:

When travelling, I like to dine at fine restaurants and visit museums.
or
When travelling, I like dining at fine restaurants and visiting museums.

Lack of parallelism in headings
I’m sometimes guilty of this one. I choose headings as I’m working and don’t think about whether they’re consistent. When I was writing the second edition of Write to Govern, my editor fortunately picked this up for me. I now check more thoroughly, even in short documents such as proposals.

Lack of parallelism in lists
Lack of parallelism in run-on lists is common. In a run-on list where every bullet point relates back to an initial statement, every point must be grammatically coherent with that statement. You should be able to read the bullet point with the initial statement and it reads like a sentence.

The committee met to:
• Discuss the new policy
• Negotiate contract terms
• Management bonuses confidential discussion

Lack of parallelism with nouns in a series
Richard Nordquist gives this example.

The company offers special college training to help hourly employees move into professional careers like engineering management, software development, service technicians, and sales trainees.

The writer moves from occupations (engineering management, software development) to job titles.

Lack of parallelism with person
Another common mistake is switching between first, second and third person.

She wrote the report close to the deadline, forgetting that you have to allow time for the manager to read it.

She wrote the report close to the deadline, forgetting that she had to allow time for the manager to read it. (parallel)

Lack of parallelism with different parts of speech

She is beautiful and also has intelligence.
He delivered his speech clearly and was funny.

She is beautiful and intelligent. (parallel)
He delivered his speech clearly and humorously. (parallel)

Where were the proofreaders?
Lynne Laracy in her blog post, Parallel structures keep your readers on track, quotes this job ad that breaks many of the rules. See how many you can spot.

The role requires the successful applicant to:

  • support and work closely with clients, managers and in a team environment
  • completion of financial statements and tax returns
  • have had accounting experience in a business environment
  • strong technical accounting skills
  • manage your own allocated portfolio
  • providing consultancy services that add value to our client’s business.

 

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