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Author Topic: Parallelism as a mark of good writing  (Read 214 times)
Joe Carillo
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« on: October 19, 2017, 12:48:12 AM »

The mark of good writers isn’t simply the richness of their ideas and their grammatical correctness but also their ability to set their thoughts in parallel. By parallel, however, I don’t mean the mathematical sense of straight lines extending in the same direction, everywhere equidistant and not meeting at all except at infinity; I mean the orderly positioning of identical syntactical elements in a sentence. Indeed, the basic principle for parallelism in writing is that to ensure clarity and avoid distraction, all grammatical elements of the ideas set in a series in a sentence should have the same form and structure.

This parallelism principle applies to all parts of speech, from articles and prepositions to nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs as well as to infinitives, gerunds, and participles. How scrupulously this principle is applied in writing greatly determines the readability and persuasiveness of the composition.

Let’s begin with the use of articles and prepositions. For them we need to observe this parallelism rule: an article or a preposition that applies to all the serial elements of a sentence must either be used only once before the first serial element, or else used again before every serial element.

This is how awkward a sentence looks and sounds when this rule is violated: “The Chinese, Thais, the Indonesians, and Vietnamese all live in the Asian mainland.” Now feel the vast tonal improvement in the sentence when the article “the” is used only once before the first element: “The Chinese, Thais, Indonesians, and Vietnamese all live in the Asian mainland.” Or when “the” is consistently used before each serial element: “The Chinese, the Thais, the Indonesians, and the Vietnamese all live in the Asian mainland.”


In practice, the most common indicator for the need for parallel structure is the presence of the conjunctions “and,” “or,” “yet,” and “but.” Take a look at this serial enumeration that requires “in” for each element: “We won in the major provinces, in the key cities, and in towns with a population of over 20,000.”  The repeated use of the preposition “in” for all the three phrases in series dramatizes the idea of winning in each of the areas cited.

Now see what happens when we knock off “in” from the last two phrases: “We won in the major provinces, the key cities, and towns with a population of over 20,000.” The sentence remains grammatically correct, but it no longer has the rhythmic power and emphasis of the original sentence; indeed, there’s even the risk that the last phrase won’t be understood in its proper context.


Now let’s carry out the parallelism to a higher plane by setting in parallel even more grammatical elements for that same sentence: “We won in the major provinces, we won in the key cities, and we won in towns with a population of over 20,000.”  Using “we won” in all the three clauses gives the sentence emotional power—that burst of enthusiasm normally expected from the speaker under such circumstances. Such use of parallelism for rhetorical purposes is actually the secret of experienced orators and propagandists in making their arguments, valid or not, more memorable and persuasive.  

The same value of parallelism can be seen in sentences using “or”: “You can take your vacation in New York, or you can take it in Paris.” This is much better and more emphatic than this nonparallel construction, “You can take your vacation in New York, or in Paris,” where the second “you can take it” has been dropped. And in sentences that use “yet,” like “You can take the train; better yet take the plane,” dropping the verb “take” in the second phrase weakens the sentence into this nonparallel statement: “You can take the train; better yet the plane.”

This essay appeared in the column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in the Education Section of the October 19, 2017 issue (print edition only) of The Manila Times, © 2017 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

(Next: Setting our thoughts in parallel)   October 26, 2017

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