Back to main page

Parallelism


     Parallelism, simply put, is following a pattern in one part of a sentence that you created in another.  The effect is a heaping helping of style.  You’ll remember this phrase from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” a series of prepositional phrases.  Parallelism is partly responsible for your remembering it.  It’s a powerful tool for writing.

The Location

Parallelism occurs in several positions:
 
•    A common place to find parallel structure is in items in a series.  Each item in a series can be a single word (Jimmy picked apples, oranges, and plums) or they can be complete ideas (Jimmy picked fruit, I picked cotton, and Sue picked lint.) or just about any other length/or part of speech.

•    Another place to look is both before and after coordinating conjunctions like and, but, or, and nor.   Often, what follows these words needs to have the same structure as what came before them.  (I drove the car to the game, and she rode her horse to the market.)  Sometimes, you’ll deal with parallel independent clauses (complete ideas), as in the previous example; in others, you’ll work with parallel phrases.  (He worked the late shift and made the honor roll.

•    A third place to find parallel structure is (in Style 16) after word combinations like these correlative conjunctions:  not only...but also, either...or, , and neither…norOther combinations include just as…so too, the more…the less, the more…the more, and just about every other conceivable combination. The bigger they are, the harder they fall.  He is not only handsome, but also intelligent.  You will either jump a rope for an hour or run a mile in four minutes.  She is neither rude nor offensive.  The more I study, the more I learn.  The less I daydream, the more I learn.

To sum up, you find parallelism in these circumstances:  items in a series, clauses and phrases joined by coordinating conjunctions, and after correlative conjunctions.
 

The Terminology

Knowing the parts of speech makes parallelism a snap, but some useful terms aren’t found in a grammar book, but they’re useful just the same.

•    Pattern maker- this would be the first item in the series, the words before the conjunctions, or the words after the combinations.  They set the pattern for the rest to follow.

•    Pattern follower- this is what you want to make the rest of the items in a series or the parts after the conjunctions or combinations to be. 

•    Pattern breaker- this is the source of faulty parallelism that you will change to a pattern follower.

The Process

This isn’t diagramming sentences; it’s more useful.  Take the sentence “Johnny ate spaghetti, Jill ate macaroni, and I ate jello.”  It has parallel structure in items in a series.  If you place the pattern maker and followers in columns, it’s easy to see the parallel structure since each column has words of the same number and type.

           Subject     action verb  direct object
            Johnny        ate            spaghetti,
            Jill               ate            macaroni,
and        I                 ate            jello.

Johnny, Jill, and I are all people or nouns.  “Ate” is obviously the same word, but it could have been any word that you can do, a verb.  Spaghetti, macaroni, and jello are all things or nouns that act as direct objects. 
     If this sentence had faulty parallelism, it might read like this:  Johnny ate spaghetti, Jill ate macaroni, and jello is what I ate.  Putting these items in a series into columns would show the third item is a pattern breaker that needs revising into a pattern follower.

Okay, put the process into use with these sentences:

1.  Sammy ate the yellow squash, the green cabbage, and beans that were refried.

Sammy ate

       the yellow squash (pattern maker)
       the green cabbage   and (pattern follower)
and  __  ____  ______.

You'll have to imagine the vertical lines between the columns:  I can't make them happen here.

The first two items in a series consist of the definite article the, an adjective, and a direct object.  It's the third item that doesn't follow the pattern.  Fix the pattern breaker.  You will have to use a participle as an adjective, but since they act like adjectives, you're good.


2.  After a short quiz, I had a B, but an A was what I had before the semester final.

Here you have two independent clauses joined with a comma and  a conjunction, but the second independent clause doesn't follow the pattern of the first.  We could make the first clause the pattern breaker, but here we don't want to because it has the superior, less awkward structure.

The first independent clause has this pattern:
Prepositional phrase, subject, action verb, indefinite article,  direct object.
       After a short quiz,          I            had               a                           B.

but   _____________,     ______       _______     ___                 _____ .

Use the information from the second clause to recreate the pattern and fill in the blanks above.

Yes, it's that easy...if you know your parts of speech.  Thank you, flash cards!