Sunday, 24 April 2016

Parallel Construction and Why It's Good for You

Parallel construction is when a series of elements—nouns, adjectives, verbs, phrases, elephants—all follow the same structure, copying each other’s moves like a row of synchronized swimmers. The effect is sometimes a subtle one, but such parallelism will make your writing flow more smoothly.

Life in the middle ages was nasty and brutish, and had alarming dental practices.

Take the following paraphrasing of Thomas Hobbes:

  • Life in the middle ages was nasty, brutish, and short.

Part of its pithiness comes from its series of parallel adjectives: “nasty, brutish, and short.” If these three words didn’t match so neatly, the sentence would be much less punchy.

  • Life in the middle ages was nasty, brutish, and had alarming dental practices.

In the original sentence, the verb was applied to all three elements: life was nasty, [was] brutish, and [was] short. But in our second version, the syntax falls apart on the third element.

  • Life in the middle ages was nasty, [was] brutish, and [was] had alarming dental practices.

This sentence isn’t really a series of three elements; it’s two elements plus another phrase. Notice how its flow is improved when it’s treated as such.

  • Life in the middle ages was nasty and brutish, and had alarming dental practices.

Whenever you begin a series—or what looks like a series—your reader instinctively expects parallel construction, even if they couldn’t define it on a game show. If your structure isn’t parallel, your sentences will feel clunky and unsatisfying.

Untangling Your Syntax


My son hunted the Jabberwock through tulgey woods, overgrown wabes, and slithy swamps.

Parallel construction applies to all kinds of series, whatever parts of speech they contain.

  • Mr. Simmons set the bell, book, and candle on the countertop and began casting the spell.

Here the three elements bell, book, and candle are all sharing an implied the: the bell, [the] book, and [the] candle.

  • X Mr. Simmons set the bell, book, and a candle on the countertop and began casting the spell.

Now our expectations of parallelism are befuddled. Our brains read an awkward “the bell, [the] book, and [the] a candle.” The sentence needs to be reconstructed.

  • Mr. Simmons set the bell, the book, and a candle on the countertop and began casting the spell.

Prepositions, too, should apply evenly to the elements in your series. If that’s not possible, you need to repeat the preposition for each element.

  • X My son hunted the Jabberwock through tulgey woods, overgrown wabes, and under tumtum trees.

Through works with the first two elements (“through … woods, [through] … wabes”), but not the third (“[through] under trees”). Either the third element needs to be changed to take the same preposition as the first two, or through needs to be repeated for the second element.

  • My son hunted the Jabberwock through tulgey woods, overgrown wabes, and slithy swamps.
  • My son hunted the Jabberwock through tulgey woods, through overgrown wabes, and under tumtum trees.

Here’s another example of disrupted syntax (which, by the way, would make a great band name).

  • X Ndidi powered up the spaceship, fed the cat, put on her sunglasses, and a course was set for Alpha Centauri.

In this sentence we have a nicely repeating series of verb-object, verb-object, verb-object, until the last element flips to object-verb (“a course was set”). Or, to look at it another way, the subject, Ndidi, works with all the series’s elements in the same way, until the last one.

  • X Ndidi powered up the spaceship, [Ndidi] fed the cat, [Ndidi] put on her sunglasses, and [Ndidi] a course was set for Alpha Centauri.

The fix, in this case, is simple.

  • Ndidi powered up the spaceship, fed the cat, put on her sunglasses, and set a course for Alpha Centauri.

Sometimes an awkward series is just crying to be separated into two sentences.

  • X I felt the waves closing around me, bubbles rush past my face, and saw a long, slimy tentacle wrap around my ankle.
  • I felt the waves close around me and bubbles rush past my face. A long, slimy tentacle wrapped around my ankle.

Parallel Construction and Helping Verbs


Auxiliary, or helping, verbs are little verbs like was, have, and could that glom on to more muscular verbs to form verb phrases, such as were perusing, have murdered, can imagine, did hoodwink, might have been drinking, and so on. Such phrases often wreak havoc on parallelism.

  • X The dragon would chew my pillows, eat my shoes, and torched my cuckoo clock.

The helping verb would pairs up chummily with chew and eat (“would chew…, [would] eat”) but doesn’t work with torched (“[would] torched”). We need to rethink our sentence’s structure.

  • The dragon would chew my pillows, eat my shoes, and torch my cuckoo clock.
  • The dragon would chew my pillows and eat my shoes, and it torched my cuckoo clock.

The dragon would chew my pillows, eat my shoes, and torch my cuckoo clock.

  • X Dr. Amani has practiced medicine in Osaka, Cairo, and danced at the Bolshoi.
  • Dr. Amani has practiced medicine in Osaka and Cairo and has danced at the Bolshoi.

Parallel Lists


Lists and subheadings should also be constructed in parallel.

Tasks for World Domination
  • to test death ray
  • digging underground lair in backyard
  • practice maniacal laugh
  • robot monster

This list contains an infinitive, a participial phrase, a verb, and a noun—and they’re all fighting with each other. Pick a format and apply it across the board.

Tasks for World Domination
  • test death ray
  • dig underground lair in backyard
  • practice maniacal laugh
  • build robot monster

Tasks for World Domination
  • testing death ray
  • digging underground lair in backyard
  • practicing maniacal laugh
  • building robot monster

Tasks for World Domination
  • death ray
  • underground lair in backyard
  • maniacal laugh
  • robot monster

Tasks for World Domination
  • to test death ray
  • to dig underground lair in backyard
  • to practice maniacal laugh
  • to build robot monster


Of course, as a writer you may choose to forego parallel construction. Sometimes disrupting the reader’s expectations can be an effective source of surprise or humour. But, as always, knowing the rules and judiciously choosing when to bend them makes all the difference between clever wordplay and sloppy writing.

1 comment:

  1. Brilliant advice and info here. More please

    ReplyDelete