It’s a basic principle of the stage magician that the performer does not reveal the secret behind his illusions. That way, he continues to preserve the mystique of his art, and the audience continues to enjoy the spectacle with childlike wonder.
The writer’s craft tries, in its own way, to generate equally dazzling effects—but we’ll share our secrets with anyone who cares to listen. Today, we’re going to look at one of the most effective ways to attract and keep your reader’s attention: parallel construction.
This Isn’t Geometry, Is it? I Hated Geometry…
Nope, parallel construction has nothing to do with math. (For the record, it also has nothing to do with a similarly named technique in law enforcement that attempts to disguise how a criminal investigation started.) It’s an ancient concept in the art of rhetoric—what we would today call public speaking—that spread to writing once literacy was common enough. Yeah, it’s a trick of art so old that it came before reading and writing, but it’s still vital today because parallelism touches something fundamental in the audience’s (or the readers’) minds.
The basic idea of parallelism is this: when building sentences or paragraphs, related ideas should be expressed using similar constructions. That doesn’t necessarily mean repeating identical words (although parallelism includes a few figures of speech that deliberately emphasize phrases to emphasize a point), but instead using similar verb forms, the same tense or sequence of tenses, possessive terms, and other grammatical structures in repeated ways.
Failing to use parallel structure isn’t a crime. It’s not even a grammatical error. It is, however, a failure of syntax, the arrangement of words and sentences to make pleasing and effective communications.
Faulty Parallels, Bad Syntax, and Oops This Third Thing Seems Out of Place
We are so attuned to the patterns of language, well written and well-spoken, that we almost wince when parallel construction fails. Here are some honest-to-goodness real examples of broken parallelism, with just enough changes so the authors cannot be embarrassed:
- "Bankruptcy is a very sensitive subject that often carries feelings of shame, confusion, overwhelm, and frustration." The error: Note the pattern after “feelings of”—noun, noun, verb, and noun. One of those things is not like the others, and so the sentence is jarring.
- "Drunk drivers use their traffic signals too much, turn the wrong ones on, and/or forgetting to turn them off." The error: You see it now, right? Verb, verb, participle has the wrong rhythm. Change “forgetting” to “forget,” and the sentence sings… almost (We have discussed why it’s bad to use and/or in another place).
- "That’s why we make it as effortless as possible to get tested, screened, and the care you need throughout Texas." The error: the sentence concludes with a sequence of two past participles and a noun. Sure, the word “get” may work with each in turn—get tested, get screened, and get care—but they still are different grammatical functions, so the word choice strikes the reader as not quite right.
- "Attorneys should always communicate their specific needs, such as when a reporter is needed for several days in a row, must know specific terminology, or travel to multiple locations in a single day." The error: The writer can make this compelling by building on and repeating the word must. Recasting this as “a reporter must be available for several days… must know specific terminology, or must travel to multiple locations…” would be much more effective.
- “You worry about how you will pay for it all, whom you should and should not talk to, and wonder when you will be able to get your life back to normal.” The error: Again, adding parallel verbs before each of the three clauses can strengthen the impact. We can even strengthen the parallel effect by making sure the verbs all start with the same uncommon letter, W: “You worry about how you will pay for it all, wonder with whom you should or should not speak, and wait anxiously for the day when your life will return back to normal.”
And When it Works, Magic Happens
We spend a little too much time deploring the almost-right sentence. Let’s look at some great examples of parallel construction that recently passed across my desk. If these don’t make you want to shout, “Yeah, that’s great writing,” then you’re dead inside.
- It’s the push that keeps you healthy, and it’s the drive to accomplish that wins you the greatest reward.
- Greyhound company representatives…will take advantage of you if they think you are uninformed, unprepared, or unsure about your rights.
- Make sure your child follows these basic pool safety tips to keep him safe in, by, and around the pool.
- If your child has been hurt, then she deserves help with her recovery. She deserves compensation for her expenses, and she deserves the full protection of the law.
Parallel construction strikes something fundamental in the human mind. Whether by nature or by culture, people are sensitized to detect patterns. Parallelism acts on our expectations at a level more basic than grammar. When the pattern is complete, we feel a rousing sense of satisfaction, as when the stage magician opens the box with a dramatic flourish to reveal his charming assistant is completely unharmed. When the expected patterns in writing are missing or broken, we feel uneasy; the show hasn’t been worth the price of admission.
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