Parallel Sentence Structure, Or “Getting All Piet Mondrian On Your Writing”

Lesson: improving your writing by using parallelism

In grammar, a series of related words, phrases, or clauses is considered to be parallel when each item in the series has a similar structure. This could mean, for example, nouns listed with other nouns or verbs that have the same ending and tense. Learning to write with a parallel structure will make your writing sound more professional and easy to understand.

Examples

The cats, the dogs, some birds, and the rabbits had a party.

Here we have three sets of adjectives and nouns that look similar (the cats, the dogs, and the rabbits) and one that looks different (some birds). To make this sentence parallel, we need to change “some birds” to fit the other adjective and noun sets by making it “the birds.”

Now the sentence looks like:

The cats, the dogs, the birds, and the rabbits had a party.

Similarly, sentences with more than one verb sound better when they are in a parallel structure.

First, here is a sentence with verbs that are not parallel:

Today the snakes filled their day by eating a mouse, throwing up innards, and they contemplated the meaning of life.

Since two out of three verbs have the –ing ending, the sentence would sound better and would be parallel if we changed the last verb to this ending. Also, we need to get rid of the “they” since the other verbs do not have a “they”  in front of them.

Here’s what the corrected sentence would look like:

Today the snakes filled their day by eating a mouse, throwing up innards, and contemplating the meaning of life.

Likewise, if you need to write a bulleted list, such as in a business report or your resume, it’s also wise to keep parallel structure in mind.

Here is an example of a list that is not parallel:

At my last job I:

  • Counted to ten repeatedly
  • Learned how to draw narwhals
  • Sandwiches
  • Fought a demon for the right to his daughter

The third bullet, “sandwiches,” is not parallel because it does not have a verb directly after the bullet to explain what you did with the sandwiches. To make this list parallel, it should look like this:

At my last job I:

  • Counted to ten repeatedly
  • Learned how to draw narwhals
  • Fed sandwiches to the sky
  • Fought a demon for the right to his daughter

Quiz

Try rewriting these examples to put them in a parallel structure.

1. The squid seems elegant, to be phosphorescent, and low maintenance.

2. An amount of sugar, an amount of spice, and the mud make a nice pie.

3. Last quarter our product:

  • Showed increased profits
  • Enjoyed a high sales volume
  • Was only responsible for only thirty cases of hair loss

4. Running the maze in a quick manner, accurately, and skillfully is the rat’s goal.

5. Our continuing mission is: 1) to explore strange, new worlds; 2) to seek out new life and new civilizations; 3) boldly going where no man has gone before.

Answers:

1. The squid seems elegant, phosphorescent, and low maintenance.

2. An amount of sugar, an amount of spice, and an amount of mud make a nice pie.

3. Last quarter our product:

  • Showed increased profit
  • Enjoyed a high sales volume
  • Led to only thirty cases of hair loss

4. Running the maze quickly, accurately, and skillfully is the rat’s goal.

5. Our continuing mission is: 1) to explore strange, new worlds; 2) to seek out new life and new civilizations; 3) to boldly go* where no man has gone before.

* Yes, I know I used a split infinitive here. Let’s save that debate for another post, shall we?

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