Parallel Structure

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  • Nancy Tuten

    20 September 2017

    Parallel Structure

    Often our writing includes lists. If these lists are to be logical and readable, the items in them must be parallel with one another. That is, all of the items in a list must be of the same logical and grammatical structure:

    • all single words of the same part of speech (e.g., all nouns, all adjectives, all verbals),
    • all phrases of the same structure (i.e., all infinitive phrases, all “-ing” verbal phrases, all noun phrases, or all prepositional phrases),
    • all subordinate clauses, or
    • all main clauses (i.e., full sentences).
    Examples:

    Single words (nouns):

    College students find that in addition to tuition, room, and board they must be able to finance other expenses including

    • books,
    • transportation, and
    • entertainment.

    Noun phrases:

    Businesses are better able to retain employees who are given

    • flexible schedules,
    • adequate vacation,
    • comprehensive health care benefits, and
    • substantial retirement benefits.

    Other phrases of the same structure:

    Let your doctor know if your child is not performing any of the following tasks at the same rate as other children the same age:

    • identifying shapes, colors, and familiar objects;
    • speaking or putting together phrases and sentences;
    • maintaining balance and coordination;
    • paying attention; or
    • following directions and remembering information.

    Subordinate clauses:

    The press noted repeatedly that the jury consisted solely of people

    • who had completed at least one year of education beyond high school,
    • whose annual income exceeded $60,000, and
    • who had lived in the Houston area for at least ten years.

    Main clauses (complete sentences):

    Cybil’s speech contained at least three clichés:

    • “A watched pot never boils.”
    • “Look before you leap.”
    • “The early bird gets the worm.”

    Parallel Structure without Bulleted Lists

    Coordinated parts of a sentence, clause, or phrase should be parallel even when there is no bulleted list (otherwise known as a vertical list).

    The coordinating conjunctions (and, but, or, nor, for, so, and yet) and the correlative conjunctions (either . . . or, neither . . . nor, both . . . and, not only . . . but also) signal the need for parallel structure. That is, the items (words, phrases, or clauses) connected by those conjunctions—whether or not we use bullets—should have the same logical and grammatical structure.

    Here is a sentence that uses the conjunction and to coordinate two thoughts, highlighted here with italics:

    When he saw the results of her work, he asked to see what cases she had read and what sources she had consulted.

    Note that the two coordinated parts—“what cases she read” and “what sources she consulted”—are parallel; that is, they are both noun clauses functioning as objects of the infinitive “to see.” Had the sentence been poorly written (i.e., contained an error in parallelism), it might have looked like this:

    Unparallel:

    When he saw the results of her work, he asked to see what cases she had read and her sources.

    Now the noun clause “what cases she read” is being coordinated with the noun phrase “her sources,” and the sentence is neither as easy to understand nor as memorable as it when the pair of items are parallel constructions.

    TEST YOURSELF:

    Identify and correct errors in parallel structure in the following sentences:

    1. The extended warranty explains these services and who delivers them.
    2. The book discusses how to build a profitable stock portfolio and saving for college tuition expenses.
    3. The company’s quarterly meetings consisted of reviewing the previous meeting’s minutes, hearing a financial report, and the president’s plans for future expansion.
    4. The lifesaving course will focus either on water safety issues or how to administer CPR.

    ANSWERS (parallel parts are in bold and conjunctions are in italics)

    1. The extended warranty explains these services and specifies who delivers them.OR: The extended warranty explains what these services are and who delivers them.
    2. The book discusses how to build a profitable stock portfolio and how to save for college tuition expenses. OR: The book discusses building a profitable stock portfolio and saving for college tuition expenses.
    3. The company’s quarterly meetings consisted of reviewing the previous meeting’s minutes, hearing a financial report, and presenting the president’s plans for future expansion. OR: The company’s quarterly meetings consisted of a review of the previous meeting’s minutes, a financial report, and the president’s plans for future expansion.
    4. The lifesaving course will focus on either water safety issues or CPR.OR: The lifesaving course will focus either on water safety issues or on CPR.

      OR: The lifesaving course will focus on either how to ensure water safety or how to perform CPR.

    Copyright 2002 Get It Write. Revised 2018.