Parallelism is the use of similar structure in related words, clauses, or phrases. It creates a sense of rhythm and balance within a sentence. As readers, we often correct faulty parallelism—a lack of parallel structure—intuitively because an unbalanced sentence sounds awkward and poorly constructed. Read the following sentences aloud:
Faulty parallelism: Kelly had to iron, do the washing, and shopping before her parents arrived.
Faulty parallelism: Driving a car requires coordination, patience, and to have good eyesight.
Faulty parallelism: Ali prefers jeans to wearing a suit.
All of these sentences contain faulty parallelism. In the first example, three different verb forms are used. In the second and third examples, the writer begins each sentence by using a noun (coordination, jeans), but ends with a phrase (to have good eyesight, wearing a suit). Now read the same three sentences that have correct parallelism.
Note that the goal in parallelism is not to use the one right type of construction (which type is your choice), but instead to make every item use the same construction.
Correct parallelism: Kelly had to do the ironing, washing, and shopping before her parents arrived.
Correct parallelism: Driving a car requires coordination, patience, and good eyesight.
Correct parallelism: Ali prefers wearing jeans to wearing a suit.
When these sentences are written using a parallel structure, they sound more aesthetically pleasing because they are balanced. Repetition of grammatical construction also minimizes the amount of work the reader has to do to decode the sentence. This enables the reader to focus on the main idea in the sentence and not on how the sentence is put together.
A simple way to check for parallelism in your writing is to make sure you have paired nouns with nouns, verbs with verbs, prepositional phrases with prepositional phrases, and so on. Underline each element in a sentence and check that the corresponding element uses the same grammatical form.
Creating Parallelism Using Coordinating Conjunctions
When you connect two clauses using a coordinating conjunction (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so), make sure that the same grammatical structure is used on each side of the conjunction. Take a look at the following example:
Faulty parallelism: When I walk the dog, I like to listen to music and talking to friends on the phone.
Correct parallelism: When I walk the dog, I like listening to music and talking to friends on the phone.
The first sentence uses two different verb forms (to listen, talking). In the second sentence, the grammatical construction on each side of the coordinating conjunction (and) is the same, creating a parallel sentence.
The same technique should be used for joining items or lists in a series:
Faulty parallelism: This committee needs to decide whether the company should reduce its workforce, cut its benefits, or lowering workers’ wages.
Correct parallelism: This committee needs to decide whether the company should reduce its workforce, cut its benefits, or lower workers’ wages.
The first sentence contains two items that use the same verb construction (reduce, cut) and a third item that uses a different verb form (lowering). The second sentence uses the same verb construction in all three items, creating a parallel structure.
Revise each of the following sentences to create parallel structure using coordinating conjunctions.
- Mr. Holloway enjoys reading and to play his guitar at weekends.
- The doctor told Mrs. Franklin that she should either eat less or should exercise more.
- Breaking out of the prison compound, the escapees moved carefully, quietly, and were quick on their feet.
- I have read the book, but I have not watched the movie version.
- Deal with a full inbox first thing in the morning, or by setting aside short periods of time in which to answer e-mail queries.
Creating Parallelism Using Than or As
When you are making a comparison, the two items being compared should have a parallel structure. Comparing two items without using parallel structure can lead to confusion about what is being compared. Comparisons frequently use the words than or as, and the items on each side of these comparison words should be parallel. Take a look at the following example:
Faulty parallelism: Swimming in the ocean is much tougher than a pool.
Correct parallelism: Swimming in the ocean is much tougher than swimming in a pool.
In the first sentence, the elements before the comparison word (than) are not equal to the elements after the comparison word. It appears that the writer is comparing an action (swimming) with a noun (a pool). In the second sentence, the writer uses the same grammatical construction to create a parallel structure. This clarifies that an action is being compared with another action.
To correct some instances of faulty parallelism, it may be necessary to add or delete words in a sentence.
Faulty parallelism: A brisk walk is as beneficial to your health as going for a run.
Correct parallelism: Going for a brisk walk is as beneficial to your health as going for a run.
In this example, it is necessary to add the verb phrase going for to the sentence in order to clarify that the act of walking is being compared to the act of running.
Revise each of the following sentences to create parallel structure using than or as.
- I would rather work at a second job to pay for a new car than a loan.
- How you look in the workplace is just as important as your behavior.
- The firefighter spoke more of his childhood than he talked about his job.
- Indian cuisine is far tastier than the food of Great Britain.
- Jim’s opponent was as tall as Jim and he carried far more weight.
Creating Parallelism Using Correlative Conjunctions
A correlative conjunction is a paired conjunction that connects two equal parts of a sentence and shows the relationship between them. Common correlative conjunctions include the following:
- not only…but also
Correlative conjunctions should follow the same grammatical structure to create a parallel sentence. Take a look at the following example:
Faulty parallelism: We can neither wait for something to happen nor can we take evasive action.
Correct parallelism: We can neither wait for something to happen nor take evasive action.
When using a correlative conjunction, the words, phrases, or clauses following each part should be parallel. In the first sentence, the construction of the second part of the sentence does not match the construction of the first part. In the second sentence, omitting needless words and matching verb constructions create a parallel structure. Sometimes, rearranging a sentence corrects faulty parallelism.
Faulty parallelism: It was both a long movie and poorly written.
Correct parallelism: The movie was both long and poorly written.
To see examples of parallelism in use, read some of the great historical speeches by rhetoricians such as Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. Notice how they use parallel structures to emphasize important points and to create a smooth, easily understandable oration.
Here is a link to text, audio, video, and the music of Martin Luther King’s speech “I Have a Dream”: http://www.mlkonline.net/dream.html.
Writing at Work
Speechwriters use parallelism not only within sentences but also throughout paragraphs and beyond. Repeating particular key phrases throughout a speech is an effective way of tying a paragraph together as a cohesive whole and creating a sense of importance. This technique can be adapted to any piece of writing, but it may be especially useful for creating a proposal or other type of persuasive workplace document.
Note that the spelling and grammar checker on most word processors will not draw attention to faulty parallelism. When proofreading a document, read it aloud and listen for sentences that sound awkward or poorly phrased.
Revise each of the following sentences to create parallel structure using correlative conjunctions.
- The cyclist owns both a mountain bike and has a racing bike.
- The movie not only contained lots of action, but also it offered an important lesson.
- My current job is neither exciting nor is it meaningful.
- Jason would rather listen to his father than be taking advice from me.
- We are neither interested in buying a vacuum cleaner nor do we want to utilize your carpet cleaning service.