What exactly is parallel structure? It’s simply the practice of using the same structures or forms multiple times: making sure the parts are parallel to each other. Parallel structure can be applied to a single sentence, a paragraph, or even multiple paragraphs. Compare the two following sentences:
- Yara loves running, to swim, and biking.
- Yara loves running, swimming, and biking.
Was the second sentence easier to comprehend than the first? The second sentence uses parallelism—all three verbs are gerunds, whereas in the first sentence two are gerunds and one is an infinitive. While the first sentence is technically correct, it’s easy to trip up over the mismatching items. The application of parallelism improves writing style and readability, and it makes sentences easier to process.
Compare the following examples:
- Lacking parallelism: “She likes cooking, jogging, and to read.”
- Parallel: “She likes cooking, jogging, and reading.”
- Parallel: “She likes to cook, jog, and read.”
- Lacking parallelism: “He likes to swim and running.”
- Parallel: “He likes to swim and to run.”
- Parallel: “He likes swimming and running.”
Once again, the examples above combine gerunds and infinitives. To make them parallel, the sentences should be rewritten with just gerunds or just infinitives. Note that the first nonparallel example, while inelegantly worded, is grammatically correct: “cooking,” “jogging,” and “to read” are all grammatically valid conclusions to “She likes.”
- Lacking parallelism: “The dog ran across the yard, jumped over the fence, and down the alley sprinted.”
- Grammatical but not employing parallelism: “The dog ran across the yard and jumped over the fence, and down the alley he sprinted.”
- Parallel: “The dog ran across the yard, jumped over the fence, and sprinted down the alley.”
The nonparallel example above is not grammatically correct: “down the alley sprinted” is not a grammatically valid conclusion to “The dog.” The second example, which does not attempt to employ parallelism in its conclusion, is grammatically valid; “down the alley he sprinted” is an entirely separate clause.
Parallelism can also apply to names. If you’re writing a research paper that includes references to several different authors, you should be consistent in your references. For example, if you talk about Jane Goodall and Henry Harlow, you should say “Goodall and Harlow,” not “Jane and Harlow” or “Goodall and Henry.” This is something that would carry on through your entire paper: you should use the same mode of address for every person you mention.
You can also apply parallelism across a passage:
Manuel painted eight paintings in the last week. Jennifer sculpted five statues in the last month. Zama wrote fifteen songs in the last two months.
Each of the sentences in the preceding paragraph has the same structure: Name + -ed verb + number of things + in the past time period. When using parallelism across multiple sentences, be sure that you’re using it well. If you aren’t careful, you can stray into being repetitive. Unfortunately, really the only way to test this is by re-reading the passage and seeing if it “feels right.” While this test doesn’t have any rules to it, it can often help.
Do of the following sentences correctly employ parallelism? If not, revise the sentences in the text frame below.
- Kya is really good at writing poems and making pottery. Atswei is a good singer and a good dancer.
- Don’t forget to let the dog out or to feed the cats.
- In this paper, we will reference the works of Walton and Sir John Cockcroft.
- Whenever he drives, Reza pays attention to what he’s doing and is watching the drivers around him.
No. While the both sentences are internally parallel, they are not parallel with each other. Here are two possible revisions to improve parallelism:
- Kya is really good at writing poems and making sculptures. Atswei is really good at singing and dancing.
- Kya is a good poet and sculptor. Atswei is a good singer and a good dancer.
- In this paper, we will reference the works of Dr. Ernest Walton and Sir John Cockcroft.
- In this paper, we will reference the works of Walton and Cockcroft.
- Whenever he drives, Reza pays attention to what he’s doing and watches the drivers around him.
- Whenever he drives, Reza is paying attention to what he’s doing and watching the drivers around him.
Rhetoric and Parallelism
Parallelism can also involve repeated words or repeated phrases. These uses are part of “rhetoric” (a field that focuses on persuading readers) Here are a few examples of repetition:
- “The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings; the inherent virtue of socialism is the equal sharing of miseries.” —Winston Churchill
- “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” —John F. Kennedy
- “And that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” —Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address
When used this way, parallelism makes your writing or speaking much stronger. These repeated phrases seem to bind the work together and make it more powerful—and more inspiring. This use of parallelism can be especially useful in writing conclusions of academic papers or in persuasive writing.
Choose a well-known speech, such as Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Winston Churchill’s “Blood, Toil, Tears, and Sweat” speech, or Barack Obama’s inaugural address. Make a copy of the speech and, individually or as a group, underline examples of parallelism. Discuss the effects of using parallelism and consider whether it is always used to achieve the same result or whether writers manipulate parallelism to create a variety of responses among their audiences.
Parallel structure means using the same pattern of words to show that two or more ideas have the same level of importance. Parallelism should occur on both a structural and organizational level and on a sentence level.
At a sentence level, parallel structure can happen at the word, phrase, or clause level. Joining two parallel items without the same grammatical structure can be very confusing to a reader. The usual way to join parallel structures is with the use of coordinating conjunctions, such as "and" or "or."
Parallelism also creates a sense of rhythm and balance within a sentence. As readers, we often correct faulty parallelism—a lack of parallel structure—intuitively because an unbalanced sentence sounds awkward and poorly constructed. Sometimes, however, faulty parallelism can really make the meaning unclear. Read the following sentences aloud:
Kelly had to iron, do the washing, and shopping before her parents arrived.
Driving a car requires coordination, patience, and to have good eyesight.
Ali prefers jeans to wearing a suit.
All of these sentences contain faulty parallelism. Although they are factually correct, the construction is clunky and confusing. In the first example, three different verb forms are used. In the second and third examples, the writer begins each sentence by using a noun (coordination, jeans), but ends with a phrase (to have good eyesight, wearing a suit). Now read the same three sentences that have correct parallelism.
Kelly had to do the ironing, washing, and shopping before her parents arrived.
Driving a car requires coordination, patience, and good eyesight.
Ali prefers wearing jeans to wearing a suit.
When these sentences are written using a parallel structure, they sound more aesthetically pleasing because they are balanced. Repetition of grammatical construction also minimizes the amount of work the reader has to do to decode the sentence. This enables the reader to focus on the main idea in the sentence and not on how the sentence is put together.
Creating Parallelism Using Coordinating Conjunctions
When you connect two clauses using a coordinating conjunction (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so), make sure that the same grammatical structure is used on each side of the conjunction. Take a look at the following example:
Faulty parallelism: When I walk the dog, I like to listen to music and talking to friends on the phone.
Correct parallelism: When I walk the dog, I like listening to music and talking to friends on the phone.
The first sentence uses two different verb forms (to listen, talking). In the second sentence, the grammatical construction on each side of the coordinating conjunction (and) is the same, creating a parallel sentence.
The same technique should be used for joining items or lists in a series:
Faulty parallelism: This committee needs to decide whether the company should reduce its workforce, cut its benefits, or lowering workers’ wages.
Correct parallelism: This committee needs to decide whether the company should reduce its workforce, cut its benefits, or lower workers’ wages.
The first sentence contains two items that use the same verb construction (reduce, cut) and a third item that uses a different verb form (lowering). The second sentence uses the same verb construction in all three items, creating a parallel structure.
On your own sheet of paper, revise each of the following sentences to create parallel structure using coordinating conjunctions.
- Mr. Holloway enjoys reading and to play his guitar at weekends.
- The doctor told Mrs. Franklin that she should either eat less or should exercise more.
- Breaking out of the prison compound, the escapees moved carefully, quietly, and were quick on their feet.
- I have read the book, but I have not watched the movie version.
- Deal with a full inbox first thing in the morning, or by setting aside short periods of time in which to answer e-mail queries
Using a piece of your own writing, try to identify any faulty parallelism by first highlightling any coordinating conjunctions, particularly "and," "or," and "but." Then, check to see whether the items that are joined by the coordinating conjunction are of the same grammatical type. If not, revise the sentence to correct the faulty parallelism.
Creating Parallelism Using Than or As
When you are making a comparison, the two items being compared should have a parallel structure. Comparing two items without using parallel structure can lead to confusion about what is being compared. Comparisons frequently use the words than or as, and the items on each side of these comparison words should be parallel. Take a look at the following example:
Faulty parallelism: Swimming in the ocean is much tougher than a pool.
Correct parallelism: Swimming in the ocean is much tougher than swimming in a pool.
In the first sentence, the elements before the comparison word (than) are not equal to the elements after the comparison word. It appears that the writer is comparing an action (swimming) with a noun (a pool). In the second sentence, the writer uses the same grammatical construction to create a parallel structure. This clarifies that an action is being compared with another action.
To correct some instances of faulty parallelism, it may be necessary to add or delete words in a sentence.
Faulty parallelism: A brisk walk is as beneficial to your health as going for a run.
Correct parallelism: Going for a brisk walk is as beneficial to your health as going for a run.
In this example, it is necessary to add the verb phrase going for to the sentence in order to clarify that the act of walking is being compared to the act of running.
On your own sheet of paper, revise each of the following sentences to create parallel structure using "than" or "as."
1. I would rather work at a second job to pay for a new car than a loan.
2. How you look in the workplace is sometimes as important as your behavior.
3. The firefighter spoke more of his childhood than he talked about his job.
4. Indian cuisine is far tastier than the food of Great Britain.
5. Jim’s opponent was as tall as Jim and he carried far more weight.
Creating Parallelism Using Correlative Conjunctions
A correlative conjunction is a paired conjunction that connects two equal parts of a sentence and shows the relationship between them. Common correlative conjunctions include the following:
- not only…but also
Correlative conjunctions should follow the same grammatical structure to create a parallel sentence. Take a look at the following example:
Faulty parallelism: We can neither wait for something to happen nor can we take evasive action.
Correct parallelism: We can neither wait for something to happen nor take evasive action.
When using a correlative conjunction, the words, phrases, or clauses following each part should be parallel. In the first sentence, the construction of the second part of the sentence does not match the construction of the first part. In the second sentence, omitting needless words and matching verb constructions create a parallel structure. Sometimes, rearranging a sentence corrects faulty parallelism.
Faulty parallelism: It was both a long movie and poorly written.
Correct parallelism: The movie was both long and poorly written.
On your own sheet of paper, revise each of the following sentences to create parallel structure using correlative conjunctions.
1. The cyclist owns both a mountain bike and has a racing bike.
2. The movie not only contained lots of action, but also it offered an important lesson.
3. My current job is neither exciting, nor is it meaningful.
4. Jason would rather listen to his father than taking advice from me.
5. We are neither interested in buying a vacuum cleaner, nor do we want to utilize your carpet cleaning service.
To see examples of parallelism in use, read some of the great historical speeches by rhetoricians, such as Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. Notice how they use parallel structures (and repetition) to emphasize important points and to create a smooth, easily understandable speech. Here is a link to text, audio, video, and the music of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s speech, "I Have a Dream": http://www.mlkonline.net/dream.html.
Proofreading Strategies for Parallelism
- Skim your paper, pausing at the words "and," "or," and “but.” Check on each side of these words to see whether the items joined are parallel. If not, make them parallel.
- If you have several items in a list, put them in a column to see if they are parallel.
Listen to the sound of the items in a list or the items being compared. Do you hear the same kinds of sounds? For example, is there a series of "-ing" words beginning each item? Or do your hear a repeated rhythm? If something is breaking that rhythm or repetition of sound, check to see if it needs to be made parallel.
Read through the following excerpt from Alex’s essay and revise any instances of faulty parallelism. Rewrite the sentences to create a parallel structure.
Contributors and Attributions
CC LICENSED CONTENT, SHARED PREVIOUSLY
- Adapted from Writing for Success. Provided by: The Saylor Foundation. License: CC-NC-SA 3.0.
- Adapted from Guide to Writing. Authored by: Writing Commons. License: CC BY-NC-ND: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives
The page was most recently updated on June 8, 2020.