Parallel Structure: A Beginner’s Guide to Understanding This Writing Technique

Parallel Structure: A Beginner’s Guide to Understanding This Writing Technique

Let’s start with a parallel structure example right off the bat. What’s wrong with this sentence?

To gain more Twitter followers, try to tweet other people’s blog posts, take part in Twitter chats and replying to other people’s tweets.

To make the problem clearer, we can turn the sentence into bullet points and add some emphasis:

To gain more Twitter followers, try to:

  • Tweet other people’s blog posts
  • Take part in Twitter chats
  • Replying to other people’s tweets

Here’s the problem: the third bullet point doesn’t match the introductory phrase.

All the verbs in this list should follow “try to” … but “try to replying” doesn’t make any sense.

You may well feel that the mistake is blindingly obvious…but when you’re drafting and re-drafting a piece of writing, errors like this can easily creep in.

What is parallel structure?

Parallel structure  — also known as parallel sentence structure or parallelism — means having matching elements of a phrase, sentence or paragraph.

It can be used for literary effect (as we’ll come see in a moment), but at the most basic level, it simply means ensuring your writing is grammatical.

Any time you introduce a series of points within a sentence or a bullet-pointed list, it’s important to ensure all the points are parallel. Often, this means starting each one with a verb in the correct tense.

Sometimes, it’s not grammatically essential to make the points in a list match…but your writing will still read more smoothly if you use parallelism.

Here’s another parallel structure example

Since the easiest way to learn is often to review examples, let’s look at another parallel structure example.

Before editing:

My favorite three tips for writing faster are:

  • The internet can be a huge distraction: turn off your connection while you write
  • If you haven’t tried it before, give dictation a try
  • Keep writing: the more you write, the faster you’ll get and the easier it will be

After editing:

My favorite three tips for writing faster are:

  • Turn off your internet connection: it can be a huge distraction while you’re writing
  • Give dictation a try: many writers report hitting 3000 – 4000 words per hour when speaking rather than typing
  • Keep writing: the more you write, the faster you’ll get and the easier it will be

The second version reads more smoothly and seems more assured, simply because each bullet point follows the same format. Each one starts with an imperative verb, then the instruction is followed by a colon and an explanation.

When you edit your work, look out for sentences and paragraphs that could easily be tweaked to bring each part into line with the others.

Going further with parallel sentence structure

Where possible (and it almost always is), you should aim to use parallelism for subheadings within a blog post or chapters within a book.

For instance, here’s how to use parallel sentence structure in a blog post.

In 4 Ways to Cope When Your Freelance-Writing Pitch Goes Unanswered, Leila Mooney uses the following subheadings (emphasis mine):

  1. Make sure you did your research
  2. Follow up
  3. Recognize a dead end
  4. Get tough

Each one starts with an imperative verb, creating a polished, coherent effect.

Let’s look at an example in a book, too. Because parallelism can also be used for literary effect: to create a link between two concepts, or to create an echo within a sentence or paragraph.

Perhaps one of the most famous examples is the opening of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Even if you’ve never heard of “parallelism” before, I bet you’re already using this technique as a natural part of your writing. Look out for it next time you write a list. This is a great way to improve your grammar.

Watch out for parallelism in other writers’ work, too: think about how they’re using it, and how it affects you as a reader.

Getting this wrong is a sure-fire way to look like a beginner. But if you get it right, your writing will read smoothly, and that’s always a step in the right direction.

Filed Under: Craft
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