Category Archives: Parallelism

Can You Fix This Sentence?

I’ve found that even professional writers sometimes don’t know how to do parallelism. Here’s a problematic sentence from today’s local newspaper, The Ledger:

Patten said Publix accepts coupons from manufacturers, competitors, and some online coupons. NOT PARALLEL

The best way to learn parallelism is to make the sentence look like a little poem. (It’s also useful to remember that the third part of the sentence is usually the source of the problem–in this example, “some online coupons.”)

Let’s try it with this sentence:

Patten said Publix accepts coupons from

  • manufacturers
  • competitors and
  • some online coupons.

Saying “coupons from some online coupons” doesn’t make sense. So let’s rewrite the sentence:

Patten said Publix accepts coupons from

  • manufacturers
  • competitors and
  • some websites.

Now it’s correct! Here it is again, formatted as a regular sentence:

Patten said Publix accepts coupons from manufacturers, competitors, and some websites. CORRECT

To read more about parallelism, click here.

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Parallel Construction

One of the marks of a skilled writer is the ability to use parallel construction in a sentence. This skill is useful, easy to learn, and…rare. (That previous 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 in which the parallelism is correct:

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, if you will, Abraham Lincoln saying “we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, and the ground can’t be hallowed.” Painful to your ears, isn’t it? And here’s 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 elements, 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. SAMPLE

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.

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Because…

My husband’s first newspaper editor thought that because was a bad word. Any time he used because in a feature, he would get a phone call from her, asking him to change it. She apparently never noticed that professional writers use because all the time. She never bothered to look it up in the dictionary. Charlie and I breathed a sigh of relief when she moved on to another publication and he was free to start using because again.

I’ve often wondered where her shibboleth against because came from. I’ve known lots of people who believe (mistakenly) that you can’t start a sentence with because. (Of course you can! Go to www.Bartleby.com and use your Find command to see how great writers use because.) But I’ve never known anyone else who was thought because was a bad word. Where did that notion come from?

This morning I may have found the answer. Here are two sentences from an education blog. Note that the because idea is ambiguous here:

Our test scores were on the rise, in fact had been for a number of years. We were not on the California list of worst schools because of said rise.

(I don’t like “said rise” at all, but let’s leave that for another day.)

Reading those two sentences, you might conclude that the rise caused some schools to be on the Californa list. Here’s a more clear version:

Because of that rise, we were not on the California list of worst schools.

Simple enough. So here are the points I’d like to make today:

1.  Because is a useful and proper word. Don’t be afraid of it.

2.  You can start sentences with because.

3.  When you use because, make sure your meaning is absolutely clear.

4. (Big picture!) The workbook exercises and grammatical discourses beloved of teachers have limited usefulness in teaching students how to write well. They won’t, for example, help you make today’s sentence more clear.

5.  Always ask a friend or family member to read and give you feedback about what you’ve written. Don’t argue when they suggest you change something you’d written. Fix it.

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Parallelism in Sentences

Very few writers use parallelism correctly. Here’s an example from a Dear Abby letter published today. This sentence isn’t parallel and needs to be fixed:

He is intelligent, financially stable, and loves me and my son.  NOT PARALLEL

Writing the sentence as if it were a poem can help you see where the problem lies:

He is

intelligent

financially stable

loves me and my son

“He is” doesn’t match “loves me and my son.”

A better sentence would have been:

He is

intelligent

financially stable

loving to me and my son

(He is intelligent, financially stable, and loving to me and my son.)

Or the sentence could have been written this way:

He is intelligent and financially stable, and he loves me and my sonCORRECT

The problems always arise with the third item in the list. Make sure it matches the other two – or make it a new sentence.

Here’s another non-parallel sentence. Can you see how to fix it? I’ll add a correction at the end.

We need to mop the floors, wash the windows, and the bathroom needs scrubbing.

We need to

mop the floors

wash the windows

the bathroom needs scrubbing

Correct version: We need to mop the floors, wash the windows, and scrub the bathroom.

OR: We need to mop the floors and wash the windows, and the bathroom needs scrubbing.  CORRECT

Parallelism is impressive, important, and easy to learn.

"Dear Abby" - Pauline Phillips

“Dear Abby” – Pauline Phillips

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