Parallel Construction – or Not

Is it still a rule if professional writers ignore it? Today we’re going to talk about parallel construction. In theory, sentences have to be parallel, so that all parts of the sentence match. Here’s an example: “Jenny served pink cupcakes, raspberry tea, and strawberry scones.” Everything matches the beginning of the sentence: things that Jenny served.

But sometimes the third item in a sentence doesn’t match the first two. Here’s an example:

For two hours we packed boxes, scrubbed floors, and Dennis fixed a squeaky door.  NOT PARALLEL

The items don’t match the beginning of the sentence! The first two are things we did, but the third is what Dennis did. To fix it, I would break it into two sentences:

For two hours we packed boxes and scrubbed floors. Meanwhile Dennis fixed a squeaky door.  BETTER

* * * * * *

So far, so good. If you aspire to be a professional writer, your sentences should be parallel. But here comes a moment of truth: this parallelism principle is ignored so often – even by the pros – that you could argue there’s no point in bothering with it.

Here are three recent examples. I will leave it up to you whether you want to be fussy about parallelism (as I expect to be till my dying day) or take a more relaxed approach. If you decide in favor of parallelism, you can get some good practice figuring out what’s wrong with these sentences!

  1. From “Like a Virgo” in the New York Times 9/1/19: “The sign is known for clear communication, a command of language, and is sometimes described as a staid librarian.”
  2. From Gene Weingarten’s “Below the Beltway” column in the Washington Post 11/11/19: “Andrew Jackson had fought in more than 100 duels, killed a man over a gambling debt, and as president, he placed a 1,4000-pound block of cheese in the White House lobby, just for the hell of it.”
  3. Another one from the New York Times 11/1/19: “Uber Fights to Get Edge Back as Shares Suffer.” “In recent emails to employees, he has said Uber’s teams are ‘too big,’ are producing ‘mediocre results’ and that the company ‘needs to get its edge back.'”

Here are my revisions:

  1. “The sign is known for clear communication and a command of language; it’s sometimes described as a staid librarian.”
  2. “Andrew Jackson had fought in more than 100 duels and killed a man over a gambling debt. As president, he placed a 1,4000-pound block of cheese in the White House lobby, just for the hell of it.”
  3. “In recent emails to employees, he has said Uber’s teams are ‘too big’ and are producing ‘mediocre results.’ He said that the company ‘needs to get its edge back.'”

sticky notes that say "right" or "wrong"

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4 thoughts on “Parallel Construction – or Not

  1. AvatarJohn Graves

    Dear Jean, I always love your lessons, but today’s had at least 2 grammatical errors in it! But I understand because we live in a hectic, digital world. I think yours were the basic typo:
    “…as I expect to me till my dying day”–you probably meant “to be”?
    “…what’s wrong with this sentences!”–these sentences.

    I do some editing myself and I hate it when someone catches me in simple mistakes!

  2. Avatarballroomdancer Post author

    Hi, John – I love it when someone catches my simple mistakes. (That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it!)
    Alas, they will continue to happen. I try hard – I really do. Sigh.
    I just checked my statistics for this post. It went through four revisions – but mistakes persist. (I would label them usage errors or typos rather than grammar mistakes, though.) I’ve found it a huge help to read the posts in preview format before I post them, and that helps me catch some mistakes. But – no matter how hard I try – they slip through. Thank you for your sharp eyes, and – if you have time – I’m always grateful for friends who are good proofreaders!

  3. AvatarWilliam Vietinghoff

    The advice today on parallelism is extremely valuable. It was first brought to my attention years and years ago and I haven’t been reminded about it until today. I am probably guilty of it and this lesson will motivate me to be more careful. It is so easy to simply drop an “and” in to combine clauses.

    The explanation about using “verbal” incorrectly for “oral” is a common mistake. Many, many years ago, the company I worked for (no names mentioned) wanted people to put all person-to-person and department-to-department directives in writing. They discovered that messages sent by phone or given to a person as they walked by their desk were being misinterpreted. So they had printed thousands of small yellow pads for employees to write down their messages. Printed at the top of each page on the pad in large, bold typeface were the words; “AVOID VERBAL ORDERS” We called the piece of paper an “AVO” If one were to take the title literally, we were not allowed to use either written or spoken words to communicate orders. I guess we were required to used flags or sign language. What is even funnier is that somebody goofed when they printed a new batch of the pads. The title at the top was mistakenly worded as “AVOID VERBARL ODERS” I have a souvenir copy filed away.

  4. Avatarballroomdancer Post author

    Great comment and wonderful story, William! I struggle with parallel construction myself. So many writers (as you can see in today’s examples) never seem to have been exposed to that concept at all. Thanks – and I love “VERBARL ODERS”! Gave me a good laugh!

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