Parallelism applies to more than geometry class — it’s important when you’re writing, too. Our brains like patterns and consistency, so it’s easier to read something when syntax is parallel. Not sure what parallel construction is? Get ready to find out!
What Does a Non-Parallel Sentence Look Like?
To get started, let’s look at an example of a series that isn’t parallel:
“Avoid applying self-tanners, tanning salons, and the sun in general for at least one month before the initial appointment.”
In this sentence, it sounds like we’re saying that people should avoid applying self-tanners, avoid applying tanning salons, and avoid applying the sun. You can’t apply a salon or apply the sun to yourself. Those last two items in the series don’t make sense because the word “applying” came at the beginning of the list, so readers will expect all the items in the series that come after to relate to “applying.”
To fix this particular problem, we’ll simply remove the word “applying.”
“Avoid self-tanners, tanning salons, and the sun in general for at least one month before the initial appointment.”
Now the sentence makes sense and any confusion disappears. The items in the series connect to “avoid,” and you can avoid self-tanners, salons, and the sun.
What Are Some Common Types of Parallelism Problems?
We editors often come across mismatched verb tenses in sentences. For example, look at this sentence:
“The manager approved the employee’s right to take a break but not getting a 75% discount on merchandise.”
Why is this sentence awkward? Because the verb “to take” doesn’t match the verb tense of “getting.” They aren’t . . . wait for it . . . parallel! While the reader may reasonably infer the sentence’s meaning, the awkward phrasing could slow them down or frustrate them. Worst-case scenario, the reader completely misunderstands the writer’s intended meaning.
Since we don’t like frustrating readers, the sentence should use “the right to take” and “to get” like this:
“The manager approved the employee’s right to take a break but not to get a 75% discount on merchandise.”
Headings and Lists
There are many more examples of parallelism we could discuss, but two types that editors see often are headings and lists that are not parallel. When you’re writing headings and lists, it’s important that they be grammatically parallel. Take a look at these headings:
- Be Careful with Walls
- Attic Space
- Outside Your House
What’s wrong with these? The first subheading is a verb phrase (the readers are being told to do something), but the last two headings are noun phrases. Why does this matter? Because parallel structure makes it easier for readers to scan and understand the subheadings and see how they’re related to each other. All these headings should either be changed to verb phrases or to noun phrases. In this case, let’s go with verb phrases:
- Be Careful with Walls
- Prepare the Attic Space
- Clean Outside Your House
Much easier to read, right?
Correct parallelism in writing is the mark of a good writer, and it showcases authority and expertise. Now that you know more about parallelism, you can catch violations of it in your own writing and other people’s writing.