Learn Parallelism: Lesson #6 from Student Work

Take the time to learn about parallelism.

This is the final post in a series expanding the six writing & editing lessons that authors can take away from my writing students.

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“Despite our in-class practices, I had some students who dreaded seeing the phrase “Not parallel!” scribbled in the margin of their essay. No matter how many times you write a sentence in the form of “I wrote a story, edited it, and my mom read it,” though, it still won’t be right. See the list of verb phrases in that example? The first two are both things that “I” did, but the third, instead of continuing the list of actions, starts a new clause, breaking the structure of the sentence. Try “I wrote and edited a story, and my mom read it” or “I wrote a story, edited it, and gave it to my mom to read.” Either/or and not only/but also phrases can also trip up your sentence construction, so invest time toward understanding parallel structure. Your copyeditor will thank you, and you’ll feel better about your own writing.” –Original post

This is a grammar rule, so the problems at hand aren’t limited to just students or just authors. Instead of the problem/fix format of the previous posts in this series, I’ll touch on three of the biggest parallelism rules that trip up both students and authors.

Rule #1: Mind your verb tenses.

If the subject of your sentence performs multiple actions, all of those verbs should be in the same tense. Try not to mix past and future actions in a list—it gets clunky.

Incorrect: Your dog was not allowed in the bookstore because he was too wild, too loud, and is not on a leash.

Not only does this sentence switch tenses (from past to present), it also doesn’t keep list items parallel. Let’s take a look: this list (“he was too wild, too loud, and is not on a leash”) appears to be a list of things the dog was. Does it keep its grammatical sense if we break it down?

  • he was too wild.
  • he was too loud.
  • he was is not on a leash.

The last one doesn’t make sense with the “he was,” so we know it isn’t parallel with the rest of the list. Here’s one way to correct this:

Corrected: Your dog was not allowed in the bookstore because he was too wild, he was too loud, and he was not on a leash.

Why didn’t I say that “he was too wild, too loud, and not on a leash?” It’s because “not on a leash” isn’t an adjective like “too wild” and “too loud” are (it’s a prepositional phrase), so to keep the forms parallel, I had to do so at the verb level, not at the adjective level.

Let’s try another:

Incorrect: Summer is the warmest season of the year, providing opportunities for outdoor activities, and gives kids a break from school.

“Summer” is the subject of this sentence. The problem here is the mix of the to-be verb (is) with the transitive verb (gives). This makes the sentence awkward, especially with the participle phrase in the mix. There are actually multiple ways to improve this sentence:

  • Summer, the warmest season of the year, provides opportunities for outdoor activities and gives kids a break from school.
  • Summer is the warmest season of the year, providing opportunities for outdoor activities and giving kids a break from school.
  • Summer stands as the warmest season of the year, provides opportunities for outdoor activity, and gives kids a break from school.

These three sentences all have different emphases: the first focuses on the benefits of summer, the second focuses on the warmth of the season, and the third tries to keep them balanced while removing the “to be” verb.

A quick note: If making a sentence parallel ever makes it feel stiff and unnatural, you don’t have to leave it like that! Just reword it more clearly (or as multiple sentences), and you’ll be able to avoid the issue altogether.

Rule #2: Mind your phrases.

Sometimes, it’s not the verbs that are the problem—it’s the phrases that you’re using as nouns, adjectives, or adverbs. These won’t always look grammatically incorrect when you break them down, but remember one rule: list items should keep the same grammatical form.

Let’s look at two quick examples:

Incorrect: The steps for completing a novel are coming up with a plot, writing a rough draft, and then you must revise and polish your manuscript.

Corrected: The steps for completing a novel are coming up with a plot, writing a rough draft, and then revising and polishing your manuscript.

In the above example, the first two steps begin with gerunds: “coming up with” and “writing.” The third step, however, is listed as a full clause: “you must revise…” and isn’t parallel. The correction makes sure that all three steps are written in gerund form.

Incorrect: I like reading, writing, and that I can help others strengthen their writing.

Corrected: I like reading, writing, and helping others strengthen their writing.

This sentence also contains a list with two gerunds and a clause. While “I like that I can help others strengthen their writing” is just as correct of a sentence as “I like reading” or “I like writing,” it needs to be in a parallel format to join them in this list.

Rule #3: Mind your either-or structures.

When you write an either-or sentence, think of a weight scale: whatever goes on one side of the “or” needs to be balanced with what is on the other side of the “or.”

Incorrect: He wants to travel either in a train or a bus.

In this sentence, “in a train” doesn’t balance with “a bus” because “in” comes after the “either” and thus only applies to the train. There are a few correct ways to balance this:

  • He wants to travel either in a train or in a bus.
  • He wants to travel in either a train or a bus.
  • He either wants to travel in a train or wants to travel in a bus.

This also applies to neither-nor, both-and, not only-but also, and not-but structures.

In balancing the two sides of the comparison, it’s important to make sure that they’re parallel grammatical structures. Here’s a not-but example:

Incorrect: Your problem is not that you can’t write but not paying attention to the instructions.

Corrected: Your problem is not that you can’t write but that you don’t pay attention to the instructions.

Note that the balance comes not from there being the same number of words (there aren’t!) but from the same level of grammatical information being included in both parts of the sentence.

Conclusion: Practice Makes Parallel!

Writing parallel sentences is something that can take a lot of practice. If you tend to mix tenses or grammar structures mid-list or have either-or confusion, take time to read and write example sentences using the correct forms and rules. The more you do, the easier these sentences will come! If you have any parallelism questions or problem sentences, post in the comments below. I’m happy to brainstorm solutions with you and explain how and why the rules of parallelism apply.

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