Authorities on writing style often stress the importance of parallelism. By this they mean the use of parallel grammar to arrange parallel ideas and elements – which could be words, phrases, or clauses. It’s about matching structures and patterns to enhance the logic and style of one’s prose, and it can make a sentence feel more balanced and coordinated.
Examples will demonstrate it better than abstractions. Consider this line: The performance was lazy, shrill, and a disaster. Three elements are used to describe the performance, listed using commas plus and. But two are adjectives and the third is a noun phrase, resulting in imbalance. Making all three elements adjectives – The performance was lazy, shrill, and disastrous – tidies and enlivens the point.
The problem is generally called faulty parallelism. It can appear when we use coordinating conjunctions such as and, or, and but, or pairs of correlative conjunctions such as either… or, neither… nor, both… and, and not only… but also. Fixes are straightforward. Instead of: the teacher is a new recruit and who has settled in quickly, we should write: the teacher is a new recruit who has settled in quickly; or the teacher is a new recruit and [she/he] has settled in quickly.
How strictly parallelism should be observed depends on whose advice you take. Pedants can be absolute in their expectations. Referring to either… or, Eric Partridge in Usage and Abusage insisted that “the division must be made with logical precision”. Either this is true or not. I mean: This is either true or not; or: Either this is true or it is not.
I say not. Some usage dictionaries cite prescriptivist authorities who are strict on parallelism yet whose own prose doesn’t adhere to the rule. Presumably this is because some slips (if they can even be called that) are so subtle that most people, even editors, don’t spot them, or do so only when they go looking.
Certainly in formal writing, parallelism lends grace and polish and also contributes to clarity, emphasis, and rhetorical effect. The Columbia Guide to Standard American English notes that parallelism allows readers and listeners “to rely on the grammatical repetition to echo the logical similarity of the thought and thus [improves] the clarity and efficiency of the passage.”
But language, particularly in spoken form, is naturally loose. In normal speech we seldom bother to ensure perfect parallelism, and this relative unconcern with precision doesn’t tend to hinder everyday communication at all. In fact, we usually don’t even notice unless the mismatch is particularly jarring. When you’re writing for an audience, though, it’s worth paying attention to parallelism for the sake of both your prose and your readers’ attention.Email this Post