Parallel Sentence Structure

Contributor: Kristen Gardiner. Lesson ID: 11793

What if parallel bars were not parallel, or train tracks moved closer and farther apart? The same weirdness happens when you hear sentences that have non-parallel parts. Learn the right way to write!

categories

Grammar

subject
English / Language Arts
learning style
Visual
personality style
Golden Retriever
Grade Level
High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Quick Query

Lesson Plan - Get It!

Audio:

Which of these is the more symmetrical set of structures? What is symmetry, and what does this have to do with reading and writing?

symmetric buildings

You probably selected the first set of matching, or parallel, structures.

We tend to find more appeal in symmetry than in the disjointed.

Look at the two photos again.

  • The first image shows two identical structures, perfectly aligned side-by-side; they represent a sort of balance.
  • The second image, however, shows two unlike structures, slightly offset by form, light, material, and structure; they do not mirror each other and are less pleasing to the eye because of the lack of balance.

Now, imagine each picture as a set of words. How would the first picture sound in comparison to the second? Think for a moment about some of the terms used to describe the images: parallel, balance, structure, symmetry. Crafting a well-written sentence is not different from creating a well-balanced architectural structure or displaying symmetry in a piece of art.

Read the following sentences out loud and decide which sounds better. Be prepared to explain your selection:

  1. "Margaret is honest, has integrity, intelligence, and she's funny."
  2. "Margaret has honesty, integrity, intelligence, and humor."

Which of the two sentences sounds more pleasing to ear? Why do you think so? Discuss your selection and reason with your parent or teacher.

The second sentence is the better of the two because it has parallel structure. All the nouns used to define Margaret agree with one verb, "has." Parallel structure improves the clarity of your writing and keeps your writing concise.


Parallel structure in writing is simply using similar elements to create a balanced list, clause, phrase, or sentence. Whenever you include a list of actions or items, you must use equal grammatical units. If the first item is a noun*, then the following items must also be nouns; if the first action is a simple past tense verb*, then make the other items simple past tense verbs as well.

Let's look at another set of lists:

  1. "The new principal promised longer lunch periods, enhanced technology access, and extended library hours for all students."
  2. "The new principal promised to give all students longer lunch periods, allow students better access to technology resources, and keep the library open later."

Do you see and hear how the first list flows more readily, and uses only one verb, allowing for parallel adjectives to be used throughout the list?

Keep this in mind when you create sentences with lists. We have a tendency to complicate our writing, but if we are aware of parallel structure, we can avoid unnecessary wordiness.

  • On a sheet of paper, craft a sentence that includes a list explaining that your friend sings well, is humorous, takes good care of animals, and excels in writing (A suggested example is located at the bottom of this section.).

What about actions? Take a look at the following sentence:

"Maeve laughed, hummed, and shook the handle as she prepared the old-fashioned stovetop popcorn."

When you list actions, you must use parallel structure*. Here, laughed, hummed, and shook are all simple past tense verbs*, making the list parallel.


Now, let's take a look at parallel structure in clauses. The famous seventeenth-century American poet, Henry David Thoreau, used parallel structure for dramatic effect in several of his works.

Here is one such example. Read the following aloud and see if you can pick out the parallel structures in the clauses. What type of effect does this word structure have on the reader? What affect does it have on the speaker?

"If we are really dying, let us hear the rattle in our throats and feel cold in the extremities; if we are alive, let us go about our business" (Henry David Thoreau).

Here, Thoreau begins with a dependent clause (If . . . dying), followed by an independent, or main, clause (let . . . extremities); then, after the semicolon, Thoreau presents another dependent-independent construction, parallel to the first.

Did you feel powerful and wise while speaking? Maybe you even felt a bit overly-dramatic, but it is a poem, after all. This example uses the "if . . . then (implied)" parallel structure that is used to show a connection or relationship.

Here is another example from Thoreau, again at the clause level:

"[W]e perceive that only great and worthy things have any permanent and absolute existence, that petty fears and petty pleasures are but the shadow of the reality" (Henry David Thoreau).

Take a moment to read this passage aloud as well, and see if you can find the parallel structure and how it functions in the dependent clauses.

Did you find that this example has two dependent clauses, each beginning with "that" and functioning as an object of the verb, "perceive"?

You need not be a poet to craft a sentence with parallel structure at the clause level.

  • Grab that sheet of paper once again and write a sentence with two cause-and-effect independent clauses (much like Thoreau's first example. Another example is provided at the bottom of this section). Remember, if you begin a clause with a correlating conjunction, such as "not only," you must reply with the appropriate correlating conjunction, "but also," in the next clause to achieve parallel structure (Either . . . Or, Neither . . . Nor).

Finally, let's look at parallel structure at the phrase level. We will use another Thoreau example. Read the line aloud and find the parallel structure. What part of speech does Thoreau use to achieve parallel structure?

"Men esteem truth remote, in the outskirts of the system, behind the farthest star, before Adam and after the last man" (Henry David Thoreau).

Here, Thoreau uses parallel prepositional phrases to modify the adjective "remote."

Now, it may seem obvious in poetry that parallel structure is used for stylistic effect, but in everyday writing, it is used to show cause and effect and other relationships. It also helps to add a simplistic cohesiveness to your writing at the word, clause, and phrase level.

  • Get that paper and pen one more time to write a sentence that has parallel structure at the phrase level. You may use Thoreau's prepositional phrases as an example. An additional example is provided below:

EXAMPLE SENTENCES:

  1. On a sheet of paper, craft a sentence that includes a list explaining that your friend sings well, is humorous, takes good care of animals, and excels in writing.
  • Example with parallel nouns: Alexis is an exceptional vocalist, a comedian, an animal caregiver, and a writer.
  • Example with parallel verbs: Alexis sings beautifully, tells hilarious jokes, takes care of sick animals, and writes like Dickens.
  • Example with parallel structure at the clause level: If a "C" is what you scored on the test, then let's celebrate with grilled liver; if an "A" is what you really earned, then let's celebrate with pizza!
  • Example with parallel structure at the phrase level: Angelina searched under her bed, in her closet, behind her dresser, and inside the laundry bin, but she could not find her sister's pet hamster, Nibbles.

Take a few moments to read over your sentences and share them with your parent or teacher. Once you are comfortable with the concept of parallel structure on the individual word, clause, and phrase levels, move to the Got It? section to review and practice editing and writing.

If you need to review, watch this short video on Parallel Structure or Parallelism (Shaun Macleod, Smrt English). In the video, you will find more helpful examples and non-examples in writing:

 

Continue on to the Got It? section to practice editing and writing using parallel structure.

*NOTE These links to definitions are from Robin L. Simmons for Grammar Bytes! at chompchomp.com.

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