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Parallel Structure Lesson
By the end of this unit, students should be able to do the following:
What is Parallel Structure?
Parallelism means using the same pattern of words to show that two or more elements in the sentence have the same level of importance. A good writer uses parallelism to create clear and concise sentences, and also to reduce the work that the reader must do to understand the author's meaning. For example,
Because each item on Doris' list is presented in the same form, the reader perceives that each item is of equal importance. If, on the other hand, the sentence were to read as follows, the reader would have difficulty following the writer's ideas:
Here, the balance is thrown off and the sentence becomes more difficult for the reader to process.
Having parallel structure becomes even more significant when two or more ideas are to be presented as having equal importance; for example,
With parallel structure, the reader can quickly process information and see relationships between ideas. Strong writers use parallel structure to organize words, phrases, clauses, and even whole essays to guide readers through their ideas.
Revising to create parallel structure...
An easy way to check for parallel structure in a piece of writing, whether that structure is between words, phrases, clauses, or paragraphs in an essay, is to think of the core idea in the structure as the trunk of a tree, and each parallel item as a branch off that trunk; once you find the trunk, follow the trunk line to each of the branches directly, checking to ensure that the trunk connects strongly (and correctly) to each branch as illustrated in the diagram below:
Original tree photograph courtesy of Benjamin Earwicker, garrisonphoto.org
All items in a series should have the same structure to help the reader quickly process information. If one element is an adjective, then all elements should be adjectives; if one element is a noun, then all elements should be nouns; if one element is a verb, then all elements should be verbs, and so forth. Take a look at the examples below:
It is important to note that one need not make all elements in a series exactly parallel; for instance, when all elements are nouns, some of the elements might also be accompanied by other words to complete an idea as in this example:
Note that only one of the parallel nouns ("vocalist" and "player") is accompanied by an adjective ("ukulele"—an adjective here because it modifies the noun "player")
When items in a series do not have the same form, the sentence will sound awkward and out of balance. The reader is forced to do much more work to figure out the author's meaning than is fair. Consider the following problematic sentences and their corrections:
Parallel Phrases and Clauses...
Phrases and clauses also need to be parallel if the sentence is to be logical, balanced, and easy to read. If one item in a series is a prepositional phrase, then every item should be prepositional phrase; if one item in a series is a verb phrase (beginning with an -ing or -ed verb), then every item in the series should be a verbal phrase; if one item is a relative clause, then every item should be a relative clause. Consider the following examples demonstrating good parallel structure:
Parallel Structure in Essay Planning...
During the planning stages of essay writing, parallel structure can also be useful. In a thesis, for example, including parallel elements helps readers see the direction an argument will take. Consider the following thesis that uses parallel structure:
From this thesis, it is easy to see what the supporting points for the essay will be.
Common Trouble Spots...
When revising your work, look out for these common sources of trouble with parallel structure:
1. What is Parallel Structure?
2. Revising to Create Parallel Structure
3. Parallel Words
4. Parallel Phrases and Clauses
5. Parallel Structure in Essay Planning
6. Common Trouble Spots