Keep it Parallel

by Cherie Tucker

February 2017

If you have ever cooked using a recipe, you may recall that each step is numbered and follows the same structure:

1. Heat oven to 350°F.

2. Beat together butter and sugar until creamy.

3. Add eggs and vanilla; beat well.

4. Add combined flour, baking soda, cinnamon, and salt; mix well.

5. Stir in oats and raisins: mix well.

6. Drop by rounded tablespoonfuls onto ungreased cookie sheet.

7. Bake 10 to 12 minutes or until golden brown.

8. Cool 1 minute on cookie sheet; remove to wire rack.

Notice that each instruction begins with a verb. This technique is known as parallel construction and is essential if you are talking about parallel things or actions. In Robert Browning’s poem, “How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix” he writes:

I sprang to the stirrup, and Joris, and he;

I gallop’d, Dirck gallop’d, we gallop’d all three.

The action and the motion move without interruption because they are all structured the same way: subject/verb, subject/verb, subject/verb. The same technique applies to descriptions and nouns and clauses.

Wrong: The experience was frightening and a distraction.

Right: The experience was frightening and distracting.

The best example of intentionally not using parallelism appears in the movie Home Alone. One brother, after discovering that his brother was not with them, was talking about how annoying his brother was with a list that was hilariously—and brilliantly—non-parallel. On his fingers the brother counted: “First . . ., and 2 . . ., and d.) . . ..

Maintaining parallel construction in your writing will allow the reader to follow the flow of your writing without having to shift gears to understand what you have written. It’s a good technique to get familiar with.

Cherie Tucker, owner of GrammarWorks, has taught writing basics to professionals since 1987, presenting at the PNWA conference.  She currently teaches Practical Grammar for Editors at the University of Washington’s Editing Certification program and edits as well.

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