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Using Parallelism in Your Writing

The Sentence Sleuth says you need to balance all the elements of your sentences. by Bonnie Trenga

I don’t know about you, but I was glued to the Olympics this year. And I’m not embarrassed to announce that I watched many hours of gymnastics, synchronized diving and synchronized swimming. You have to admire the athletes’ amazing precision, excellent balancing and graceful landings.

If only writers were as precise, balanced and graceful as these medal winners. If they were, readers could happily wend their way down a logical, parallel path, enjoying elegant sentences whose parts match each other. Parallel elements have the same weight and are often the same part of speech. Noun, noun, noun. Check. Adjective, adjective, adjective. Yep. Verb, verb, verb. Parallelism is all about equality; parallelism creates a nice rhythm in your sentence; unparallelism, bad. Adjective, adjective, verb. Yikes. Noun, adjective, adjective. Insert sour-faced judge here.

Learning to make sentences parallel is a difficult skill, perhaps as hard as learning to dive off a 10-meter platform without killing yourself. Making sure sentence elements are parallel is like making sure a subject agrees with a verb—only harder. Subject-verb agreement involves matching only one subject with one verb; parallelism can involve multiple elements.

To become powerhouses of perfection, writers must study and practice their manuevers. What better way to encourage balanced sentence elements than to organize a new Olympic event: Synchronized Sentences. Writers will now care about
parts of speech.

Before writers can compete in this event, they must undergo a tough four-step training regimen. Step 1 is to identify sentences that contain like elements and then to practice identifying them until the author gets writer’s cramp. A simple sentence like this won’t concern our writers in training because it doesn’t contain elements that need to be parallel: “The swimmers were beautifully synchronized.” On the other hand, complex sentences that contain more than one like element must be parallel: “The swimmers had to jump into the water, swim upside down and point their toes.” They had to verb, verb, verb.

Moving on to Step 2, writers will learn about what I call the base word, which changes with each sentence. Looking back at the swimmers sentence, trainees will notice that the elements “jump,” “swim” and “point” all fit nicely with the word “to.” It’s tricky to notice a potential parallelism problem, so our contestants-to-be will spend hours identifying base words in sentences. Then they will repeat—as in, actually write down repeatedly—the base word in each sentence. This exercise might not yield pretty sentences, but it is an intermediary step that will lead writers toward the gold. Writers will practice repeating themselves in sentences like this: “The synchronized swimmers enjoy jumping into the water, enjoy being upside down
and enjoy pointing their toes.” Quick, identify the base word.

In Step 3, competition hopefuls will make sure the elements that all go with the base word are parallel, meaning at the same level, equal. For example, this sentence is not parallel: “The swimmers decided to get out of the pool and that they needed a bite to eat.” Although the infinitive “to get” and the “that” clause both go with “decided,” these two elements don’t match each other. You need two infinitives or two “that” clauses, not one of each. If you want to try out for the event, pick a way and reword this sentence now. Then go back to sentences you examined in earlier steps and make sure the elements are parallel with each other. Be sure to identify their parts of speech.

The final training step will test our writers’ parallelism skills by having them write normal, complex sentences. Then contestants will ensure that the sentences are parallel in both ways: elements are parallel with the base word and elements are parallel with each other. The catch is that this time our writers won’t repeat the base word. No soft pad under the parallel bars for them. They must stick the landing.

When writers get to Step 4, they’ve had so much practice matching base words to elements and matching elements with elements that they can easily spot an unparallel sentence: “The synchronized swimmers were agile, precise and eventually got used to their nose pinchers.” What? (Negative buzz sound.) Not parallel: adjective (“agile”), adjective (“precise”), adverb-verb (“eventually got”). The end of this sentence resembles a crash landing on the mat, not our goal: a graceful dismount. Rewrite it now. One way: “The synchronized swimmers, who were agile and precise, eventually got used to their nose pinchers.”

The U.S. Olympic Committee will soon begin screenings for the Synchronized Sentences event, so practice the four steps diligently. And rest assured: If you make the team, we won’t make you wear that pinched-nose thingy.

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