If you want to know what parallelism is and how to use it in your writing, you've come to the right place. In this article, we'll cover this writing tool's meaning and the best parallelism techniques.
This guide is part of our free online Grammar Book.
What does it mean when two or more things are parallel? If we consider the geometrical meaning for a moment, when two lines are parallel, they are identical and follow the same direction.
The grammatical meaning is similar: when two sentences are parallel, they follow the same direction. They are not identical, per se, but very similar in that they'll use similar grammatical structures. In short, parallelism helps you bring symmetry to your sentences.
Sometimes, it involves using the same words; sometimes, it can mean using the same parts of speech; other times, it involves using a pattern.
I want to go home, eat dinner and go to bed. ✅
I want to go home, eat dinner, and then I'm heading to bed. ❌
Though the second sentence isn't technically incorrect, grammatically, it doesn't follow parallelism rules because the first two verbs are in the infinitive form, and the third is in the present participle form. The first sentence is preferable because the three verbs follow the same infinitive form structure.
You could also have all three verbs follow the infinitive form structure:
I'm going home, eating dinner and then I'm heading to bed. ✅
You might want to use parallelism in your sentences for two reasons:
In the first case, yes, parallelism, while not compulsory, will significantly improve your credibility because your sentences will be better crafted. It can come across as a bit amateurish to have sentences without parallelism. Look at our example from earlier; the second sentence doesn't sound quite right, although technically, you can't fault it as there's nothing wrong with it. But the lack of parallelism makes it sound odd. The first and third sentences are much more pleasant to read and easier to understand.
And what about those who use it as a tool? Well, it's no coincidence that many of the world's most memorable speeches and idioms use parallel structure. It creates a harmonious effect that makes your sentences memorable and easy to understand. It's like poetry!
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.
See how each sentence begins with 'I have a dream'? That's an example of anaphora, a parallelism technique (more on that later).
And the great thing about parallelism? It's versatile! You can use it not only in creative writing like poetry and short stories but also in more official pieces of writing like papers and speeches.
Parallelism is a broad topic and can apply to several elements of your sentences. I will show you the most common techniques, as once you grasp them, you can apply them to all of your writing.
There are essentially two kinds of parallelism to correspond with the two reasons why people use parallelism in the first place:
The idea with grammatical parallelism is that you use the same grammatical units in each part of your sentence or across your sentences if there is more than one.
Let me explain.
Let's look at the different ways you can ensure you do this.
We saw this in our earlier example, where we made the sentence parallel by ensuring all the verb forms in the sentence matched. Instead of having two verbs in the infinitive form and one in the present particle form, we changed the last one so that they were all aligned.
But here's another example:
I've washed, peeled, and am now going to boil the potatoes.
The first two verbs are in the past indefinite tense, whereas the final one is in the future tense. The tenses are, in fact, correct since two items have already been completed, whereas the other one is yet to be done. But then they shouldn't feature in the same list.
I would rephrase the sentence this way:
I've washed and peeled the potatoes and now I'm going to boil them.
This same principle applies to all the other parts of speech, too—for example, adverbs.
Take the following sentence, for example:
The baby confidently and without fear stood up and took two steps. ❌
Here we have the adverb 'confidently' and the prepositional phrase 'without fear.' It sounds pretty clunky. This sentence would be much improved if we could match the parts of speech using two adverbs instead.
The baby confidently and fearlessly stood up and took two steps. ✅
See the improvement?
Here's an example of a sentence that uses two nouns followed by an adjective:
I like flowers, sunshine and hot. ❌
This sentence isn't parallel because the three items in the list are different parts of speech. Here you have a couple of options. You could keep the word 'hot' and turn it into a noun phrase like 'hot weather.' Or you could simply change the word to its noun form, 'heat.'
I like flowers, sunshine and hot weather. ✅
I like flowers, sunshine and heat. ✅
Either way, in both cases, you now have a parallel structure.
Here's one more example, this time with pronouns.
The green toothbrush is his and the red toothbrush is Sally's. ❌
In the first part of the sentence, we've used the pronoun 'his'; in the second part, we've used the person's name.
As a side note, it would be okay to put a sentence like this if the name of the 'his' person was referred to in the previous sentence.
Are those John's toothbrushes?
The green toothbrush is his and the red toothrbush is Sally's.
I could show you many more examples of grammatical structure, but I think you get the picture. You can apply the same principles to any lack of parallelism caused by mismatched parts of speech in a sentence. So I'll just show you one last example for the road.
Sometimes you might use a conjunction when listing a series of items in a sentence. You don't have to, but you can. If you decide to, make sure you use it for all the items.
Unlike in the following sentence:
The problem with the hose is that it's too small, that we can't afford it, and it isn't near a school. ❌
The first two items in the list contain the conjunction 'that,' whereas the last one doesn't. If you're going to use a conjunction, commit to it. But if you can leave it out, leave it out for all the items.
The following two sentences are both correct:
The problem with the hose is that it's too small, that we can't afford it, and that it isn't near a school. ✅
The problem with the hose is it's too small, we can't afford it, and it isn't near a school. ✅
Top Tip! Notice how the titles in this section follow a parallel structure: they each start with a verb in the present participle tense.
If you're not using parallelism because you're a grammar nerd, like me, and want your sentences to sound the best they can, then you might want to use it as a literary device.
There are several different kinds of literary parallelism, some of which I will cover now.
Anaphoras allow you to repeat certain words at the beginning of a clause, phrase, or sentence as a way of emphasizing them. By way of example, here's an excerpt from a famous speech of Lincoln's:
We cannot dedicate—we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground.
Epistrophes are similar to anaphoras in that they use word repetition, except the repeated word is at the end of the clause, phrase, or sentence, like in the following famous sentence that you'll always hear in a court of law (or on your favorite legal drama).
Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?
Antithesis, as the prefix 'anti' implies, is a way to lay out two opposing ideas, like in this famous quote by Armstrong:
That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.
Notice how the structure of each of the two phrases matches (adjective+noun) while presenting opposing ideas.
Sentences that contain asyndetons are very interesting because they're technically ungrammatical. The idea is to leave out the coordinating conjunctions (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so) for increased fluidity. Have you ever heard this famous saying?
Live, laugh, love.
You can often find it on decorative homeware items. There should be an 'and' between the second and last items, but it makes the sentence flow better to leave it out. And it's okay to do so, considering the purpose of the sentence.
The opposite of asyndeton is syndeton, where you add in more conjunctions instead of removing them, like in these lyrics from the famous Rolling Stones song 'Satisfaction':
'Cause I try and I try and I try and I try
I can't get no, I can't get no
Sentences that use climax as a figure of speech organize elements of a series into ascending order to build up the final piece. These words by Shakespeare illustrate it well:
Lost, vaded, broken, dead within an hour.
The last type we'll look at is symploce, a combination of anaphora and epistrophe: you repeat words at the beginning and the end of a sentence. Here's an extract from a Walt Whitman poem that uses symploce.
And if the body does not do fully as much as the soul?
And if the body were not the soul, what is the soul?
That concludes this article on parallelism and how to use it in your writing.
Let's summarize what we've learned:
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