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Parallel Structure Lesson

By the end of this unit, students should be able to do the following:

    • Recognize faulty parallels in their writing.
    • Balance parallel items in a series using conjunctions
    • Create parallel structure between phrases and clauses
    • Use parallelism to create coherence and balance in writing
    • Use the principles of parallel structure to organize an essay and develop a thesis

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,

Doris went shopping and bought a pair of high heels, a new CD and a new pair of glasses.

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:

Doris went shopping and bought a pair of high heels, a new CD, and she found a new pair of glasses.

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,

Dorothy survived a tornado, crash-landed in a foreign land, travelled across a vast countryside, and defeated an evil witch.

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:

tree diagram of parallelism


Original tree photograph courtesy of Benjamin Earwicker, garrisonphoto.org

Parallel Words...

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:

The film Some Like it Hot is funny, well-written, and daring for its time.   (all parallel elements are adjectives)

Some Like It Hot tells the story of two musicians, Joe and Jerry (Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon), who are on the run from a Chicago gang after witnessing the Saint Valentine's Day massacre of 1929.  (parallel elements are proper nouns)

Broke, frightened, and desperate, Joe and Jerry disguise themselves as women and join an all-girl band headed to Florida. (parallel elements are adjectives, nouns, and verbs)

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:

Joe and Jerry both fall for "Sugar" Kowalczyk (Marilyn Monroe), the band's ukulele player and vocalist, and fight for her affection while maintaining their disguises. (adapted from Wikipedia.org)

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:

Faulty Parallel:
Sugar is only interested in dating millionaires and security.

Sugar is only interested in dating millionaires and finding security.

Faulty Parallel:
Joe comes up with a second disguise to get Sugar's attention: He wears a white sportscoat, a captain's cap, mimics Cary Grant, and claims to be the heir of Shell Oil.

Joe comes up with a second disguise to get Sugar's atttention: He wears a white sport-coat and captain's cap, mimics Cary Grant's accent, and claims to be the heir of Shell Oil.

(In this version, each element begins with a verb.  In the previous version, some elements began with verbs, while others began with nouns.  Parallel structure is created by joining the first two wardrobe elements into a single element.)


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:

To escape the mob and to solve their financial problems, Joe and Jerry join an all-girl band. (parallel infinitive phrases)

Director Billy Wilder filmed Some Like it Hot in black and white, not because he wanted to be artistic, but because a greenish tint in Lemmon's and Curtis' heavy make-up could not be hidden on color film. (parallel subordinate clauses)

Marilyn Monroe had two big problems during filming: remembering her lines and hiding her pregnancy. (parallel verbal phrases)


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:

Going to college brings many advantages: A college experience broadens a person's sense of the world and his or her place in it, creates new career opportunities, and is often the source of lifelong friendships.

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:

shifts in type of phrase or clause:

Be sure to stay consistent with the types of phrases you use.  Shifts in phrase type create confusion:

Faulty Parallel:
She hates to study, to work, and going to school, but she loves partying.

She hates studying, working, and going to school, but she loves partying.

appropriate use of prepositions, articles, and modifiers with each item in a series:

Be very careful to ensure that the preposition, article, modifier, or auxialliary verb is appropriate to each item in a series; otherwise, the sentence will be illogical. The initial items are going to govern every item in the series, unless you write the appropriate item into each phrase:

Faulty Parallel:
On her first day at work, Thelma wore a new dress, shoes, hat, and her favorite briefcase.

On her first day at work, Thelma wore a new dress, shoes, and hat, and carried her favorite briefcase.





Video Lesson

parallel structure video lesson


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

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