Parallelism, precision, and pedantry

Posted by on April 28, 2014

© BrandX PicturesAuthorities 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.

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Comments (15)
  • It’s interesting to see the elements of style broken down in this way, Stan: I had never knowingly encountered this notion of parallelism before, but now you point it out it makes perfect sense.
    I was thinking that the addition of an adverb would perhaps make your inelegant example acceptable: The performance was lazy, shrill, and overall (or: in short) a disaster. If so, perhaps it is because the sequence of adjectives is interrupted and thus ceases to matter; we’re no longer waiting for the other shoe to drop.

    Posted by Liz on 28th April, 2014
  • Liz: I think parallelism flies under the radar most of the time either because we observe it automatically in our writing (some “faulty parallelism” is clearly ungrammatical) or because its lack doesn’t interfere with comprehension or draw attention to itself. But it’s useful to know about when we’re writing or editing and want to enhance effect or add polish. In the example you’ve adapted, the interpolation reduces the fault, I think, and for the reason you say. Though it wasn’t an egregious case to begin with.

    Posted by Stan on 28th April, 2014
  • I have no objection myself to adjectives and descriptive noun phrases being coordinated with commas and ‘and’. However, I keep noticing in the media the use of adjectives coordinated with verbs eg (to adapt your example) “The performance was lazy, shrill, and made me want to walk out”. Have others noticed this, and does it jar on them as much as it jars on me? I’ll try to get you a real-world example.

    Posted by Elizabeth Manning on 29th April, 2014
  • Stan:

    From the floorboard to the rafter,
    Neither, nor, until it’s after
    Either one thing, or anothe;,
    Father, mother, sister, brother,
    And from where the family sit,
    The matter seems quite opposite

    Posted by marc leavitt on 29th April, 2014
  • Elizabeth: That’s a good illustration of something I’ve noticed too: not just in journalism but in academic prose that I’m editing. My example, though not fully parallel, isn’t very bad, but your adaptation is further along the line towards fault.

    Marc:
    In formal prose one’s parlance
    Ought to strive towards balance,
    But a lot of the time,
    Unevenness is fine.

    Posted by Stan on 29th April, 2014
  • […] Do you pay attention to parallelism in your translations? Parallelism is the use of parallel grammar to arrange ideas and elements to make a sentence feel more balanced and coordinated. You can find out more in this Macmillan Dictionary article. […]

    Posted by Around the web – April 2014 | A Smart Translator's Reunion on 3rd May, 2014
  • Here are a couple of recent examples of non-parallel coordination. From the New Scientist magazine (10 May 2014): “Is it asthma, a chest injury, or are they having a heart attack?” And from a listing of National Trust events for spring 2014: “Come along and make mud pies, wild art and track wild animals.”

    Posted by Elizabeth Manning on 21st May, 2014
  • Thanks for reporting those examples, Elizabeth. I’ve come across two or three similar cases in the last week, and routinely edited them to make the prose read better.

    Posted by Stan on 21st May, 2014
  • […] Parallelism, precision, and pedantry looks at the importance of parallelism: how its observance can bring polish (and correctness) to your style, but also how it’s not as vital as some pedants – and the phrase faulty parallelism – might have you believe. Faulty parallelism: […]

    Posted by Parallelism, pedantry, and prescriptivist purism | Sentence first on 22nd May, 2014
  • Elizabeth’s second example highlights the major problem with non-parallelism (if that’s a word). While saying a performance was “lazy, shrill, and a disaster” may be inelegant, at least it’s clear. (Personally, I don’t even find it especially inelegant, but that’s another story.) But “come along and make mud pies, wild art and track wild animals” is confusing. The problem is that the verb “make” wants to attach itself to all three items that follow, but “track wild animals”, which has its own verb, rejects the attachment. The reader has to unravel the sentence in order to understand it. I see this a lot in the work I edit for clients.

    Posted by Ken Grace on 22nd May, 2014
  • In the email notification about this post, I clicked on the link in “Read the rest for more *analysis of parallelism*, and some good discussion in the comments” and this came up:

    Secure Connection Failed

    An error occurred during a connection to http://www.macmillandictionaryblog.com. SSL received a record that exceeded the maximum permissible length. (Error code: ssl_error_rx_record_too_long)

    The page you are trying to view cannot be shown because the authenticity of the received data could not be verified.
    Please contact the website owners to inform them of this problem. Alternatively, use the command found in the help menu to report this broken site.

    Posted by Mark Mandel on 23rd May, 2014
  • Ken: That’s true, yes. I should perhaps have picked a more objectionable type than “lazy, shrill, and a disaster” in order to stress the point. Your example of faulty parallelism is similar to what I sometimes see in poorly edited official communication (as well as in my own editing work), and illustrates the problem well.

    Mark: Thanks for reporting this technical glitch. I assume someone at home base is looking into it, or will do so as soon as possible.

    Posted by Stan on 24th May, 2014
  • You might be interested in some recent research that suggests parallelism sometimes has a negative impact on recall of information: see /proswrite.com/2014/07/23/use-parallel-structure-in-lists-to-increase-reading-efficiency/.

    Posted by Kim Sydow Campbell on 23rd July, 2014
  • Thanks for bringing this research to my attention, Kim.

    Posted by Stan on 23rd July, 2014
  • […] Sometimes, creating a pattern in the words you use helps to create a balanced sentence, enforcing your logic. This is known as parallelism. Find out more about it in this post. […]

    Posted by Could parallelism help you? | The Proof Angel on 25th July, 2014
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