What is Parallelism and How to Create It [5 Ways]?

What is parallelism?

Parallelism in sentences means putting two or more similarly-placed (or equal) elements in the same grammatical form. Example:

I love Italian and Mexican food.

In the above example, Italian and Mexican are two similarly-placed elements (or equal because they’re separated by a coordinating conjunction, and) and therefore have been written in the same grammatical form, noun. In this example, the two elements are just words, but in general these elements can be words, phrases, or entire clauses. (Note that parallel elements have been underlined in most examples and that my comments throughout the post are in square brackets.)

I love Italian at Shells and Sauce and Mexican at La Loma. [Phrases]

I like how tastefully you cook Italian and what you add as garnish. [Clauses]

Parallelism, in plain language, makes similarly-placed elements outwardly similar. It dresses the elements in similar clothes to make it easy for the readers to identify them in a crowd. You would’ve heard that good writing requires variety in sentences. Parallelism is a rare departure from this convention of variation. It advocates similarity.

Let’s take another version of the same sentence.

I love Italian and like Mexican food.

In the earlier parallel version, both Italian and Mexican had the same verb, so it was used once to represent both. But here, each has its own verb because the person does different things (love and like) to each. Now, the underlined parts, separated by and, are the two similarly-placed (or equal) elements, and hence they’ve been put in parallel form (verb followed by a noun).

More resources on parallelism:

Faulty parallelism

Faulty parallelism is absence of parallelism. Consider the first sentence written differently:

I love Italian and eating Mexican food. [Not parallel]

Now, the sentence isn’t parallel because the two equal elements separated by and aren’t in the same grammatical form: whereas Italian is a noun, eating Mexican is a gerund phrase. Although the gerund phrase is also acting as a noun, it nonetheless has disturbed the earlier similar-looking two sides of the seesaw, Italian and Mexican. This is faulty parallelism. In this post, you’ll see number of examples of faulty parallelism alongside their corrected versions.

Few things to note before we proceed further:

  1. And is the most common word that separates similarly-placed (or equal) elements. There are more however, and we’ll cover them in this post.
  2. Just as we need at least two straight lines to think of parallel lines, we need at least two elements to think of parallelism. (If you noticed, this was a parallel sentence, with two clauses placed parallelly.)

Why use parallelism?

Parallelism, through repetition, adds rhythm and balance to your writing, making it easier to follow. They’re especially useful in following long lists, especially when each item itself is long (example of this later in the post). Consider the same sentence written in two different ways:

My 6-year-old niece is smart, playful, and knows how to operate different gadgets. [Not parallel]

My 6-year-old niece is smart, playful, and gadget-savvy. [Parallel]

(If you don’t understand why the second sentence is parallel and the first is not, don’t bother at this stage. We’ll cover rules for this further down in the post.)

The second sentence, parallel, is rhythmic and easier to follow because all its similarly-placed elements have the same grammatical structure, adjective. Try reading both the sentences aloud and see which sounds smoother.

People, through reading good literature over the years, subconsciously get used to parallel structures, and therefore they won’t even pause and notice a good parallel structure.  However, a reader needs to slow down somewhat to comprehend a sentence that lacks parallel structure. Don’t we slow down when we encounter a speed bump on an otherwise smooth road?

Remember, parallelism won’t be noticed. Lack of it will be.

Because of the rhythm, balance, and clarity it lends, parallelism is commonly used in speeches to capture people’s attention. Few examples (more later):

My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country. John F. Kennedy

You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time. Abraham Lincoln

What if John F. Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln had conveyed the same message with these words:

My fellow Americans, you shouldn’t be asking what your country can do for you; instead, ask what you can do for your country.

You can fool all the people some of the time but not all the time. You can also fool some of the people all the time.

Wouldn’t have been as memorable, isn’t it? The second one still has some parallel part, but the overall parallelism is lost. In Abraham Lincoln’s quote, the third parallel part is separated from the other two by a subject-verb pair and, in my opinion, taints parallelism little bit. I think this quote can be made even more parallel in two ways:

You can fool all the people some of the time, some of the people all the time, but not all the people all the time. [Three phrases in parallel]

You can fool all the people some of the time. You can fool some of the people all the time. But you cannot fool all the people all the time. [Three sentences in parallel]

How to make a sentence parallel? [5 ways]

There are five main patterns in parallelism covered in the post from hereon. However, just the first covers probably 80 percent of parallel constructions you’ll read or write, and that’s why it has been covered in quite detail. The second covers most of the rest. Getting a hang of the first two alone will solve most of your parallelism problems.

As a brush up, parallel structures come into play only when you’re writing two or more elements. Otherwise, not.

1A. Two elements joined by coordinating conjunctions

1B. More than two elements in a list joined by and/ or

Parallel construction in these two works in essentially the same way and therefore have been clubbed together for ease of understanding:

  • Two elements (also called pair) joined by coordinating conjunctions (FANBOYS)
  • More than two elements (also called list) joined by and / or

For all practical purpose though, when joining a pair, you’ll deal only with and, or, and but among FANBOYS.

Elements in a pair or a list should have parallel structure (or be grammatically equivalent).

Examples:

My 6-year-old niece is smart, playful, and knows how to operate different gadgets. [Not parallel]

My 6-year-old niece is smart, playful, and gadget-savvy. [Parallel: list of adjectives]

He failed the exam because he missed classes, didn’t complete the assignments, and his final project worth 30 percent marks was rejected because of plagiarism. [Not parallel]

He failed the exam because he missed classes, didn’t complete the assignments, and didn’t receive any marks in his final project worth 30 percent marks because of plagiarism. [Parallel: list starting with past form of verb]

The invigilator told the students that they should leave their mobile phones and other belongings outside the room, that they should maintain silence during the exam hours, they should not seek any kind of help, and to seek permission for any kind of break. [Not parallel]

The invigilator told the students that they should leave their mobile phones and other belongings outside the room, that they should maintain silence during the exam hours, that they should not seek any kind of help, and that they should seek permission for any kind of break. [Parallel: list of that clauses]

Note how parallelism helps in cleanly identifying – and understanding – long clauses. That’s why it was mentioned in ‘why use parallelism’ section that parallel structures are especially useful in following long lists, especially when each item itself is long. Second, you can use that just once, but in clauses, which are often long, we often repeat that (and similar words) to easily follow when the next clause begins.

1.1 Bullet points follow the same parallelism rule as lists

Bullet points, often used in presentations, too should be parallelly placed, and the rules are more or less the same as in lists. This example, covered earlier, has been put in the form of bullet points:

He did not get good marks in the exam because he

  • rarely paid attention in the class
  • didn’t complete assignments
  • didn’t feel well on the exam day

All elements in bullet points are parallel like they were in non-bullet-point version.

1.2 A common parallelism error in pairs and lists

Do you remember distributive property of multiplication from algebra?

A* (B + C + D) = A*B + A*C + A*D

The left-hand and the right-hand sides are one and the same. This distributive property is an important consideration in avoiding a common mistake in parallel sentences. Consider these sentences:

I’ve lived in Australia, U.S., and Canada. [This is similar to left-hand-side of the above equation, with in equivalent to ‘A’]

I’ve lived in Australia, in U.S., and in Canada. [This is similar to right-hand-side of the above equation, with in equivalent to ‘A’]

I’ve lived in Australia, U.S., and in Canada. [Faulty parallelism]

In other words, a preposition that applies to all elements of a list or pair can be written either once before the first element or before each element. Though we prefer to write only once before the first element to avoid extra words.

This, however, isn’t sacrosanct to just prepositions. It can apply to almost any part of speech. This is the example we looked at earlier in the post:

I love Italian and Mexican food. [Here the verb love applies to both the elements and hence has been written once before the first element]

This part is easy. Problem arises when that part of speech doesn’t apply to all the elements. Consider this example:

Your clothes are scattered around in the bathroom, the cupboard, and the table. [Not parallel. Can clothes be in the table?]

Your clothes are scattered around in the bathroom, in the cupboard, and on the table. [Parallel]

Do you see the difference between the parallel and non-parallel versions? Because the same preposition doesn’t apply to all the elements, you can’t pull it out and use it once before the first element. This is same as our inability to pull out ‘A’ outside the bracket in A*B + A*C + E*D. It has to be written as it is.

I’ve given example specifically of preposition because that’s where most mistakes happen. One last bit before we close this. Prepositions (or other part of speech) can come in the end as well. In this case, the same distributive property applies, this time it is pulled out after the last element.

(B + C + D)*A = B*A + C*A + D*A

Here again most mistakes happen with prepositions. An example:

The new curriculum aims to improve students’ exposure and concepts about latest in science. [Not parallel. If about applied to both the elements, this was fine, but here the two words – exposure and concepts – take different prepositions]

The new curriculum aims to improve students’ exposure to and concepts about latest in science. [Parallel]

See how Barack Obama got prepositions right in this sentence in his 2009 inaugural address:

I stand here today humbled by the task before us, grateful for the trust you have bestowed, mindful of the sacrifices borne by our ancestors.

1.3 A test to check if you’ve used parallelism correctly

A test to see if you’ve correctly used parallelism with elements in pairs or lists is to read the sentence with one element at a time and see if it makes grammatical sense. Let’s understand this through an example:

My 6-year-old niece is smart, playful, and knows how to operate different gadgets.

If we read the sentence with one element at a time, we get following three:

My 6-year-old niece is smart. [Fine]

My 6-year-old niece is playful. [Fine]

My 6-year-old niece is knows how to operate different gadgets. [Not fine]

The parallel form of the above sentence is:

My 6-year-old niece is smart, playful, and gadget-savvy.

Run the test with this sentence, and you’ll get all three sentences fine.

This test will also help you catch the error in preposition we discussed in detail earlier. Let’s take the earlier example.

The new curriculum aims to improve students’ exposure and concepts about latest in science.

If we read the sentence with one element at a time, we get following two:

The new curriculum aims to improve students’ exposure about latest in science. [Not fine]

The new curriculum aims to improve students’ concepts about latest in science. [Fine]

Now run the test with the correct sentence, and you’ll get both the sentences fine.

The new curriculum aims to improve students’ exposure to and concepts about latest in science. [Parallel]

This test may, however, not work in few exceptional cases

Let’s take an example:

The English professor told the students that they should aim for perfect attendance, that they should always do their assigned homework, and to submit their term papers on time.

If we read this sentence with one element at a time, we get following three:

The English professor told the students that they should aim for perfect attendance. [Fine]

The English professor told the students that they should always do their assigned homework. [Fine]

The English professor told the students to submit their term papers on time. [Fine]

The third sentence too is fine even though it breaks parallelism. The parallel sentence should be:

The English professor told the students that they should aim for perfect attendance, that they should always do their assigned homework, and that they should submit their term papers on time.

Or

The English professor told the students that they should aim for perfect attendance, always do their assigned homework, and submit their term papers on time.

[If always concerns you as spoiling parallel construction, you’ll have answer to it toward the end of the post]

Aside few exceptions like this, the test works well. (Little vigilance in seeing odd-thing-out will help you notice those few exceptions.) I’ve tried this test with students, especially those still learning the ropes, and they’ve found it helpful.

2. Two elements joined by correlative conjunctions

Do you see any problem with this sentence?

A preposition that applies to all elements of a series or pair can either be written once before the first element or before each element.

Yes, it has a problem. Here is the correct one:

A preposition that applies to all elements of a series or pair can be written either once before the first element or before each element.

[If once concerns you as spoiling parallel construction, you’ll have answer to it toward the end of the post]

(I wrote this sentence earlier in this post.) You may not even detect the difference between the two in the first read. I’ve observed more parallelism mistakes in correlative conjunctions than in coordinating conjunctions and lists, and quite often the error arises from misplacement of one-half of correlative conjunction by a word or two, like in the example above.

Each of the two constituents of a correlative conjunction should be followed by the same grammatical structure. (Note that correlative conjunctions occur in pair, either-or being an example.)

either once before the first element or before each element

The underlined parts, two prepositional phrases, are parallel (ignore the modifier once for now). The best way to get parallelism in correlative conjunctions right is to reduce them to ‘either A or B (it could be any correlative conjunction), and then see if A and B are parallel.

Here are few examples of parallel constructions in common correlative conjunctions.

Both, and

It was both a long exam and very difficult. [Not parallel]

It was both a long and very difficult exam. [Parallel]

A long exam and very difficult are not the same grammatical structures. In the former, an adjective (long) describes a noun (exam). In the latter, there is no noun to be described.

Not, but

A time not for debate but action. [Not parallel]

A time not for debate but for action. [Parallel]

Not only, but also

Mac is not only good in academics but also is good at playing violin. [Not parallel]

Mac is not only good in academics but also good at playing violin. [Parallel]

Either, or

Either you must take the test or forego the dream of going to a good college. [Not parallel]

You must either take the test or forego the dream of going to a good college. [Parallel]

Neither, nor

Amy is interested in neither how difficult the course is nor the instructor. [Not parallel]

Amy is interested in neither how difficult the course is nor who the instructor is. [Parallel]

3. Two elements joined by comparison words

Two elements compared by comparative expressions such as as much as, more than, and less than should have parallel grammatical construction.

Like with correlative conjunctions, the best way to get them right is to reduce them to A and B form. Few examples:

I enjoy going out for a movie as much as I enjoy to watch football on television at home. [Not parallel]

I enjoy going out for a movie as much as I enjoy watching football on television at home. [Parallel 1: I enjoy A as much as I enjoy B.]

I enjoy going out for a movie as much as watching football on television at home. [Parallel 2: I enjoy A as much as B.]

I prefer p-cap to wearing hat. [Not parallel]

I prefer wearing p-cap to hat. [Parallel: I prefer wearing A to B.]

3.1 A common parallelism error in comparison words

Consider this example:

Playing in a real match is much tougher than a practice match.

Do you see any problem? Here, playing (verb) is being compared to match (noun). Its parallel version would be:

Playing in a real match is much tougher than playing in a practice match. [A is much tougher than B.]

Another example:

We teach skill-based courses and hence our fee is higher than regular university courses. [Not parallel. Fee is being compared to courses.]

We teach skill-based courses and hence our fee is higher than the fee of regular university courses. [Parallel: A is higher than B]

We teach skill-based courses and hence our fee is higher than that of regular university courses. [Parallel. That of means fee of. That’s another way of writing.]

4. Two elements joined by linking verb

Elements joined by a linking verb should have the same grammatical structure.

This isn’t a common parallel construction, and you can go with be as the linking verb for all practical purposes. Example:

To make that impossible demand is declaring open hostilities. [Not parallel]

To make that impossible demand is to declare open hostilities. [Parallel]

If you notice the pattern in the above examples, there are two equal weights on both sides of the linking verb is. These sentences are not the same type as:

Susan is disappointed with her friend.

In such sentences, what follows the linking verb is a complement to the subject, Susan, and it doesn’t require a parallel form.

5. Parallelism in consecutive sentences

So far, we’ve looked at parallelism of elements within a sentence, and that’s like 95 percent of the topic. But we can also write adjacent sentences in parallel form for rhythm and force. Example:

I was disappointed with the committee’s functioning, but I swallowed my disappointment. My colleague though expressed his disappointment. [Not parallel]

I was disappointed with the committee’s functioning, but I swallowed my disappointment. My colleague too was disappointed, and he chose to express it.

[Parallel. It’s parallel to the extent that both sentences follow the same grammatical structure of two independent clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction. Sometimes, you can’t force parallelism beyond a point without changing the meaning.]

Both the sets are grammatically correct, but the second is better because of its parallel structure. Here is an example of three sentences in parallel, which were part of Joe Biden’s speech during the turmoil-filled counting days in 2020 presidential election:

We the people will not be silenced. We the people will not be bullied. We the people will not surrender.

Sometimes, you can split the sentence to achieve parallelism

How do you make this sentence parallel?

To become a better writer, I need to work on writing parallel sentences, structure, supporting evidence, and pay attention to feedback I receive from my instructor.

You can split the above sentence into two.

To become a better writer, I need to work on writing parallel sentences, good structure, and supporting evidence. I also need to pay attention to feedback I receive from my instructor. [Here, you put elements together on the basis of the verb that covers them. Note that supporting, a participle, is acting as an adjective. In fact, the two sentences too show some parallelism – need to work vs. need to pay attention – but that’s less important.]

Alternatively, you can write a single parallel sentence with multiple verbs.

To become a better writer, I need to work on writing parallel sentences, writing good structure, including supporting evidence, and paying attention to feedback I receive from my instructor.

Less-than-perfect parallelism is acceptable

Do you need to write picture-perfect parallel sentences like these?

I have always sought but seldom obtained a parking space near the door.

Mac finished the dessert, paid the bill, and left the restaurant.

The first has adverb + verb combination in parallel. The second has past form of verb + noun. On top of that, word count in each element matches perfectly.

Isn’t this asking for too much, like celebrities under pressure to always look camera-ready? In my opinion, it is. Even I would miss some of these unless I’m editing with microscopic scrutiny.

Parallelism doesn’t need to be showbiz. Consider these:

Mac finished the dessert, paid the bill, and drove off to the concert.

[The third element has a prepositional phrase, and not a noun, after the verb. As long as you start with the same form of verb, you’re fine.]

The English professor told the students that they should aim for perfect attendance, always do their assigned homework, and submit their term papers on time.

[The second element, unlike other two, is fronted by an adverb always. Such modifiers are fine. They don’t taint your parallel sentence.]

A preposition that applies to all elements of a series or pair can be written either once before the first element or before each element.

[Similar to the second example, the adverb once is fine]

As long as all the elements are functioning as a particular phrase (noun, verb, adjective, adverb, prepositional, participial, gerund, infinitive, etc.), a modifier or few extra words in one or two elements rarely spoil parallelism.

However, mixing gerunds and infinitives is pushing it too far even though both act as nouns.

John likes traveling, listening to music, reading novels, and to play tennis. [Not parallel]

John likes traveling, listening to music, reading novels, and playing tennis. [Parallel]

Notice the last of the four elements in both the sentences. In the non-parallel sentence, all four elements are acting as nouns, but all four gerunds in the parallel sentence (gerunds also act as nouns) are more rhythmic and hence preferred.

To cap this section, I’ve come across plenty of such parallel constructions in reputed publications, and they’re impressive despite the minor blemish.

Tip on writing parallel sentences

While editing your writing, look out for coordinating conjunctions (and, or, and but) connecting two elements, lists, correlative conjunctions, and comparison words. Make sure that all the elements therein are in the same grammatical form. Presence of an extra modifier is fine as long as each element is the same phrase type (noun phrase, verb phrase, prepositional phrase, etc.).

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