Parallel Construction

Here’s a skill for you to work on: parallel construction. This skill is useful, easy to learn, and rare. (That sentence is an example of parallelism.)

Even professional writers regularly go astray when they try to write sentences that feature parallelism. Or perhaps the problem is that they don’t try.

Here’s a sentence with parallelism:

But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. CORRECT

(BTW: Did Abraham Lincoln really start a sentence with but? Yes, he did – as good writers often do.)

Here’s another parallel sentence:

Give me liberty, or give me death. CORRECT

Imagine Abraham Lincoln saying “we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, and the ground can’t be hallowed.” Painful to your ears, isn’t it? And imagine Patrick Henry saying “Give me liberty, or you can kill me.” Not quite the same effect.

So what do you need to know about parallelism?

1.  All the parts need to match.

2.  If you’re writing a sentence with three parts, the third one will be the problem. Guaranteed.

3.  A useful trick is to write the sentence in question like a little poem. Make sure all three parts match a word near the beginning.

4.  An easy solution to parallelism problems is to break the sentence into two shorter ones.

Sound complicated? It really isn’t. Let’s try one.

For his birthday we’re treating George to dinner, giving him a gift certificate, and he’s taking the day off from work.

Here’s the same sentence, written like a little poem:

For his birthday we’re

-treating George to dinner

-giving him a gift certificate, and

-he’s taking the day off from work.

“He’s taking the day off from work” doesn’t go with we’re. So the sentence needs to be fixed. Usually the easiest solution is to make two sentences, like this:

For his birthday we’re treating George to dinner and giving him a gift certificate. He’s taking the day off from work. CORRECT

Parallelism is pretty easy once you get the hang of it. Look for examples (they’re everywhere!) and practice fixing them. Soon you’ll be an expert.

Parallel railroad tracks


One thought on “Parallel Construction

  1. Ann Miele

    First of all thank you again for all your helpful posts. As an EFL teacher I’ve used many of your examples to help my students.

    From my school days I’ve had a trick to remember the difference between “desert” and “dessert”. We all love “desserts” so we want two of them. Corny, yes, but it’s helped me over the years.

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