Understanding and Using Parallel Structure: a Beginner’s Guide

Understanding and Using Parallel Structure: a Beginner’s Guide

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

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.

Understanding and using parallel structure

Parallel 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 that your writing is grammatical.

Any time you introduce a series of points within a sentence or a bullet-pointed list, you need to ensure all the points are parallel. Normally, 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 do use parallelism.

Here’s an 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 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, 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.

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.

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

How could you take parallel structure further in your next piece of writing?

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