Parallel structure can make your writing more effective and establish a more rhythmic, elegant flow to your words. It’s a key element in any well-constructed sentence that supports related ideas.
But don’t worry: we’re not about to spring more geometric lingo on you. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll find that parallel structure is a simple way to increase the clarity and readability of your writing.
What Is Parallelism in Writing?
Parallel structure is used to demonstrate the equal importance of two or more ideas. It’s also referred to as parallelism or parallel construction.
Parallel structures (at the word, phrase, or clause level) are commonly joined by coordinating conjunctions, such as “and” or “or.”
Writing that lacks parallel structure also lacks rhythm and balance, resulting in an awkward and unpleasant flow.
Take a look at these examples:
Parallel: Julia likes swimming, dancing, and running marathons.
Also Parallel: Julia likes to swim, dance, and run marathons.
Not Parallel: Julia likes swimming, dancing, and to run marathons.
The sentence lacking parallel structure sticks out like a sore thumb, and it’s unpleasant to both the eye and ear.
Many readers will have to go back and reread the sentence for clarity. That’s definitely something you want to avoid in your writing! If readers have to work to understand something that simple, they’re more likely to put your book down out of frustration.
Parallel Structure Examples
The following are more examples of how parallelism can be used with words, phrases, and clauses to achieve greater clarity.
When you’re listing verbs, as in the example above, you can use either gerunds (verbs that function as nouns, usually ending in -ing) or infinitives (verbs that start with “to”).
But you have to choose one!
Parallel: When he has time off, Mark likes traveling, reading, and cooking.
Parallel: When he has time off, Mark likes to travel, read, and cook.
Not Parallel: When he has time off, Mark likes traveling, reading, and to cook.
Always make sure that your verb forms are consistent when listing multiple verbs.
Nouns vs. Verbs
If you have a sentence with more than one clause, make sure they contain either verbs or nouns—not a combination of both.
Parallel: For breakfast, Mary likes to drink coffee and fry eggs.
Not Parallel: For breakfast, Mary likes coffee and to fry eggs.
If a verb is used in the first clause, it must also be used in the second.
Singular vs. Plural
Make sure that your nouns agree in number.
Parallel: Carmen didn’t like to travel on planes or ships because she was afraid.
Not Parallel: Carmen didn’t like to travel on planes or a ship because she was afraid.
Adverbs vs. Adjectives or Prepositional Phrases
If you use more than one modifier to describe an object, make sure they’re the same part of speech (i.e., both adverbs or both adjectives).
Parallel: Elizabeth calmly and gracefully made her way down the aisle.
Not Parallel: Elizabeth calmly and with grace made her way down the aisle.
Parallelism in Speech and Literature
In speech and literature, parallel structure can make your rhetoric extra powerful and even make it more memorable.
Some of the most famous speeches and works of literature have utilized parallelism to achieve repetition or balance.
“My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
—John F. Kennedy
“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
“I came, I saw, I conquered.”
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…”
—Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
Use Parallel Structure for More Effective Writing
As you can see, neglecting parallel structure can make writing choppy and unclear. Avoid these common mistakes and make your writing more effective by maintaining parallelism.
What’s one grammar rule that you still struggle with? Feel free to share in the comments below!