When we think of conjunctions, most of us think of single words: and, but, therefore, although, and the rest of the coordinating, adverbial, and subordinating conjunctions. But when conjunctions work in pairs, we call them correlatives because they link two corresponding ideas that need to be parallel in both structure and logic. (This is the third in a three-part series on parallel structure. See also parallel structure with bulleted lists and parallel structure using coordinating conjunctions in embedded lists.)

What Is a Correlative?

Here are the most common correlative conjunctions (for a complete list, go here):

  • either x or y
  • neither x nor y
  • both x and y
  • not x but y
  • not only x but also y (or not only x but y)

How Can Correlatives Be Misused?

Sentences that use correlatives without parallel structure are awkward:

These unprecedented times affect not only those of us here in the United States but also are clearly having a global impact.

This writer has illogically correlated a group of people (“those of us here in the United States”) with an action (“are clearly having a global impact”). What the writer likely intended to compare were two groups of people:

These unprecedented times affect not only those of us here in the United States but also people around the world.

Or the writer may have meant to compare two actions:

These unprecedented times not only affect those of us here in the United States but also wreak havoc around the world.

The Bottom Line

The rule is simple: the same grammatical and logical construction should follow both parts of a correlative conjunction. In our examples, the pronoun those pairs with the noun people, and the verb affect pairs with the verb wreak. Here’s another example, this one attempting to use the correlative conjunction either x or y:

Our failure to respond to the climate crisis means that many coastal cities must either face increasingly destructive flooding or they must relocate to higher ground.

What follows either is a verb phrase: face increasingly destructive flooding. But what follows or is an entire independent clause: they must relocate to higher ground. The sentence is, thus, not parallel. To make it parallel, we must determine which two things (two actions, two nouns, two adjectives, two adverbs, etc.) we are comparing. Here, the answer is two actions: face or relocate. The parallel version of this sentence using one of the correlatives, then, should look like this:

Our failure to respond to the climate crisis means that many coastal cities must either face increasingly destructive flooding or relocate to higher ground.

Why Bother Using Parallel Structure with Correlatives?

  • First, writing reflects thinking; readers might assume we are sloppy thinkers if our writing isn’t logical.
  • Second, when text is grammatically parallel, it is more memorable. Just as it is easier to remember passages that rhyme or have consistent rhythm, it is easier for our brains to recall information expressed in parallel form.
  • Finally, parallel structure enhances both the sophistication and the professionalism of our writing.

Test Yourself

Identify and correct problems with parallel structure in the following sentences using correlatives:

  1. During the holidays, the company not only gave employees a bonus but also time off.
  2. Early next year, the corporate office will either move to Tokyo or to Paris.
  3. Neither the dismal weather forecast nor paying for expensive airfare dampened Harold’s excitement about his trip abroad.
  4. The Martins not only gave their house a fresh coat of paint but also new windows and landscaping.
  5. The manager reprimanded Fred for both being late and for failing to complete the report on time.

Answers

  1. During the holidays, the company gave employees not only a bonus but also time off.

In the corrected version, both parts of the correlative conjunction are followed by a noun phrase. In the original, not only was followed by a verb and but also was followed by a noun phrase—an illogical construction because we aren’t comparing two actions but two things: bonus and time.

  1. Early next year, the corporate office will move either to Tokyo or to Paris.

Here both parts of the correlative conjunction are followed by a prepositional phrase.

OR: Early next year, the corporate office will move to either Tokyo or Paris.

In this version, the preposition is part of the introduction, and a noun—specifically, the name of a city—follows each part of the correlative conjunction.

  1. Neither the dismal weather forecast nor the expensive airfare dampened Harold’s excitement about his trip abroad.

In the original, the correlative conjunction connected the noun phrase the dismal weather forecast to a gerund phrase, paying for the expensive airfare. Although gerunds do function as nominals—that is, they can fill any slot a noun can fill—regular noun phrases differ significantly in form from gerund phrases, which always begin with an -ing form of a verb. 

  1. The Martins gave their house not only a fresh coat of paint but also new windows and landscaping.

In the original, not only came before a verb, gave, and but also came before two noun phrases, new windows and landscaping.

  1. The manager reprimanded us both for being late and for failing to complete the report on time.

OR: The manager reprimanded Fred for both being late and failing to complete the report on time.

In the original, both came before a gerund (being), and and came before a prepositional phrase whose object is a gerund (for failing . . .). We can correct it by making the correlative conjunction join either two prepositional phrases (as in the first corrected sentence) or two gerunds (as in the second).

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