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!
- 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.”
- 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.”
- 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:
- “The sign is known for clear communication and a command of language; it’s sometimes described as a staid librarian.”
- “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.”
- “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.'”