Parallelism

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Parallelism

I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat. ~Winston Churchill
 
This is one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind. ~Neil Armstrong
 
…and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth. ~Abraham Lincoln
 
I came, I saw, I conquered. ~Julius Caesar

 
These quotes probably sound familiar. They are famous words (although the first one is often misquoted; people switch tears and sweat and leave out toil altogether). People remember them in part because they were spoken by important people during historically important times. But these quotes are famous also because of the way they sound. There is a distinct rhythm, a cadence, to each of these statements. This rhythm is due in part to parallelism, sometimes called parallel structure.

But, what if Churchill  had said it like this?

I have nothing to offer but my blood, toiling, the tears I cry, and perspiration.

No one would have remember those words for long.

The difference lies in the list of things Churchill says he has to offer. In the actual quote, Churchill lists four one-syllable nouns: blood, toil, tears, sweat. In this  awkward second version, there is a pronoun-noun combination (my blood), a present participle (toiling), a noun clause (the tears I cry), and a four-syllable noun (perspiration). There’s no rhythm. The idea is the same, but the power and music of the words disappears.

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The rule of parallelism is simple: Items in a list should be in the same grammatical form. Here are some examples:

Not Parallel: The students loved to run, play and swimming.

Parallel: The students love to run, play and swim.

Or: The students love running, playing, and swimming.

The rule of parallelism goes for any kind of word list – including nouns, verbs, adjectives, or adverbs.

Nouns: What impressed me about Alfred was his loyalty, determination and humility.

Verbs: Julius swiveled, swooped and alley-ooped his way to NBA stardom.

Adjectives: The evening sky seemed more vast, silent, and empty than ever.

Adverbs: Lightly, gracefully, and majestically, the eagle descended.

 The same principle applies when including a series of phrases, clauses, or even whole sentences. Read the quotes by Armstrong, Lincoln, and Caesar at the top of the page. Part of what makes these famous statements unforgettable is the repetition of word structure. In the first quote, Armstrong repeats the same pattern:

One [adjective] [noun] for [noun]

One small step for man

one giant leap for mankind

Lincoln’s quote repeats three prepositional phrases with the same object – the people. The Julius Caesar quote repeats three independent clauses beginning with the pronoun I (Caesar, of course, spoke these words in Latin: Veni, vidi,  vici.)

It’s not necessary to analyze all of your sentences this carefully. Parallelism usually happens by instinct. There’s just something natural about the sound of repeating word patterns.

It’s even possible to string together whole sentences with parallel structure:

Everyone prepared for the big test in his own way. Evan was up past midnight. Chad arose before dawn. Evelyn didn’t sleep at all.

Tip:  When sentences are this closely related and maintain parallel structure, you may use a semicolon instead of a period to separate them. This normally improves the flow of the sentence by eliminating the “complete stop” a period requires:

Everyone prepared for the big test in their own way. Evan was up past midnight; Chad arose before dawn; Evelyn didn’t sleep at all.

Sometimes you can add emphasis to a particular phrase or clause by changing its structure at the end of a parallel list:

Most of us followed orders instantly. Frank began straightening his bunk, Louie started scrubbing the floor, Oscar set to polishing his shoes, but Nathan, apathetic, leaned against the wall with his arms folded. He wasn’t moving.

Do you see how by breaking the parallelism in the bold sentence the reader’s attention is drawn to Nathan? He becomes the focus of the paragraph.

Remember when listing words, phrases, and clauses to keep your lists parallel in grammatical form.

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About the Author

Brian Wasko

Brian Wasko

Brian is the founder and president of WriteAtHome.com. One of his passions is to teach young people how to write better.

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  1. money lender singapore
    money lender singapore07-05-2016

    Everything is very open with a clear clarification of the issues. It was really informative. Your site is very helpful. Many thanks for sharing!

  2. Merri Larsen
    Merri Larsen08-02-2012

    Although parallelism is of extreme importance, as a writing teacher I find it is among the most neglected topics. My grateful thanks for shining light on this aspect of writing!

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