What the handout is about
This handout will help you understand what parallelism or parallel structure is and when to use parallelism to improve the clarity, flow, and conciseness of your writing.
Parallelism occurs when one or more sentences contain two or more elements with the same grammatical or conceptual structure. Less precisely, parallelism occurs when parts of a sentence (or even sentences themselves) are presented in a sequence and have the same basic “shape.” It’s often easy to spot effective uses of parallelism in real sentences. Look for the similarity in the boldface elements of each example.
These are parallel prepositional phrases:
- “…and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth” (Abraham Lincoln, “Gettysburg Address”).
These are parallel past tense verbs:
- “He laid down the carving knife and fork . . put his two hands into his disturbed hair, and appeared to make an extraordinary effort to lift himself up by it.” (Charles Dickens, Great Expectations).
These are parallel “that” clauses:
- “I could only tell him that I was the happiest woman in all the wide world, and that I had nothing to give him except myself, my life, and my trust, and that with these went my love and duty for all the days of my life” (Bram Stoker,Dracula).
In his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, Martin Luther King, Jr. uses parallelism to add emphasis and rhetorical force to his argument. Look closely for examples of phrase repetition (“I have a dream that…”) grammatical repetition (by the color of, by the content of, etc.), linking pairs (the red hills of Georgia, the state of Mississippi, etc.) and contrasting pairs (a state of injustice and oppression / an oasis of freedom and justice).
- “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 a 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.” (Martin Luther King, Jr. “I Have a Dream”).
Revising for parallelism
You may have received feedback from an instructor about problems with parallelism, sometimes called “faulty parallelism.” While there is nothing necessarily ungrammatical about non-parallel structures, the consistency and rhythm of parallel structure can improve clarity and flow. To revise, start by identifying elements of writing that could be in parallel form. Then ask yourself whether they are all in the same grammatical form or order.
Non-parallel grammatical structures
- The three pillars of the Mayor’s campaign are supporting local business, reducing crime, and education.
Parallel grammatical structures
- The three pillars of the Mayor’s campaign are supporting local business, reducing crime, and increasing educational funding.
- – OR –
- The three pillars of the Mayor’s campaign are local business development, crime reduction, and education.
- The study included teenagers, people in their thirties, and octogenarians.
- The study included people in their teens, in their thirties, and in their eighties.
- Three fundamental elements of design are line, color, and shape. Line refers to any two connected points, while
shape refers to any enclosed space. Color comprises hue, saturation, and brightness.
- Three fundamental elements of design are line, shape, and color. Line refers to any two connected points, while shape refers to any enclosed space. Color comprises hue, saturation, and brightness.
Working parallelism into your writing process
By now you should have a good sense of what parallelism looks like, but you might be wondering how exactly to make sure that you are using it in your own writing. Here are a few approaches you can try:
Be aware of items in series
At the sentence level, notice when you’re writing a list of two, three, or more things—words, phrases, or longer expressions—and try using the same grammatical structure for each item in the series.
At the essay level, notice when you’re writing about topics or concepts that can be enumerated as a series (not just logically sequenced). Play with introducing each concept in the series with a consistent grammatical structure.
When you introduce a series of ideas, notice the order in which you introduce them, and discuss the ideas in the same order.
Listen as you read aloud
When you read aloud, read slowly enough to give voice to each word. This may allow you to notice those items in series that aren’t yet parallel, and may even draw your attention to all sorts of potential revision targets. If a sentence sounds awkward or wordy to you, or if the relationship between the different parts of your sentence seems unclear, that could signal an opportunity to revise with parallel structure. Our handout on reading aloud explains the rationale, strategies, and tools for reading aloud.
Have someone else read your draft
Lastly you can check for parallelism in your writing by asking someone else to read through your draft, and listen for instances of non-parallel structure. Ask a friend or roommate to read through your paper, or schedule an appointment with the Writing Center!
We consulted these works while writing this handout. This is not a comprehensive list of resources on the handout’s topic, and we encourage you to do your own research to find the latest publications on this topic. Please do not use this list as a model for the format of your own reference list, as it may not match the citation style you are using. For guidance on formatting citations, please see the UNC Libraries citation tutorial.
Dreyer, Benjamin. 2019. Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style. New York: Random House.
Williams, Joseph. 2000. Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace. Boston: Addison-Wesley.
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