Problems Of Parallel Structure In Writing

Problems Of Parallel Structure In Writing cover

Whether speaking your native language or one that you are learning, speaking smoothly and with a pleasing rhythm can help you make a connection with your listeners. Try these tips for using the "parallel structure" to build nice, complex sentences.

Shall I tell you what the real evil is? To cringe to the things that are called evils, to surrender to them our freedom, in defiance of which we ought to face any suffering”. – Lucius Annaeus Seneca

What makes this quote so powerful? Because it makes a good point on an debatable evergreen topic: good versus evil. However, the structure itself adds to the impression. There’s a certain rhythm in the choice of words, which makes the quote memorable. It’s a great example of parallel structure.

  • To cringe, to surrender, to face.

These are the elements that give the quote its rhythm and convincing tone. When you’re presenting two or more ideas of the same importance in a single sentence, you should try to use this same pattern of words. If you don’t maintain that parallel structure, you’ll have a syntax problem.

Parallel structure is an important thing to learn. When you know how to deal with it in your native language, you’ll be able to use that skill in every other language you learn. That’s one of the strangest benefits of learning a language: good grammar in one language benefits you when learning another one.

Let’s explore a few cases of parallel structure and discuss their problems. If you learn this lesson well, your writing will become clearer and much more powerful.

“He is smart, witty, and has a lot to say”

In this sentence, we see a verb (is) followed by two adjectives (smart, witty). So far, we’re doing well. Since these adjectives share a subject and a verb, repetition is not necessary. The second part of the sentence, however, confuses us. There’s another verb (has), but we’re keeping the same subject. The structure is not balanced.

If we want to maintain this structure of the sentence, but make it clearer, we’ll have to combine smart and witty in the same part of the sentence, without separating them with interpunction signs. Here’s how that would sound:

  • “He is smart and witty and has a lot to say”.

Now we’re keeping the same subject for the entire sentence, and the verbs make more sense.

What lesson did we learn? Sometimes it’s impossible to maintain parallel structure throughout an entire sentence. In this case, we can change the sentence to something like “He is smart, witty, and communicative”. That would be a nice example of parallel structure. However, communicative is not the same thing as has a lot to say. We would be changing the meaning of the sentence, and that’s something we don’t want.
When you want to write out this type of sentence, it’s important to link the adjectives to the verbs as clearly as possible.

“Her bright spirit and motivation for hard work on each task is crucial for her success”

Let’s analyze the beginning of this sentence: “Her bright spirit and motivation for hard work”. It’s clear that both bright spirit and motivation for hard work are linked to one subject, but there’s a problem with this parallel structure. The adjective bright applies only to spirit. When we write this sentence like this, we create a lack of clarity: does it apply to motivation, too? To clear this up, we’ll have to repeat the pronoun, as below:

  • “Her bright spirit and her motivation for hard work on each task is crucial for her success”.

Mentioning her three times in a single sentence may sound repetitive. However, since this is parallel structure we’re talking about, such repetition makes the sentence clearer and more convincing.

“We’re going to achieve great results by practicing more mindfulness, gratitude, and by being less angry”

We’re achieving great results by practicing two things: mindfulness and gratitude. So far, so good. The being less angry part, however, messes up our parallel structure. We’re listing three elements in the sentence, and the last one has a different structure to the remaining two. Since this is listing, we’re confused: more is relevant to mindfulness and gratitude, but not to the rest of the sentence. The same goes for the verb practicing.

To fix this problem, we need a conjunction between mindfulness and gratitude. To make the parallel structure even stronger, we’ll clarify what more stands for by using it once again:

  • “We’re going to achieve great results by practicing more mindfulness and more gratitude and by being less angry”.

“I have to be packing for this trip, call some friends, and plan what I’ll be doing there”

At first sight, this sentence seems perfectly fine. However, we have a serious problem with parallel structure: it’s grammatically unbalanced. They don’t teach you that on your very first language class.

The first thing we need to do is find the list in the sentence: packing, call, and plan. These are actions of equal importance, but we didn’t use the same tense for them. Call some friends and plan what I’ll be doing there – these parts don’t match the verb have to be at the beginning of the sentence.

  • “I have to be packing for this trip, calling some friends, and planning what I’ll be doing there”.
  • “I have to pack for this trip, call some friends, and plan what I’ll be doing there”.

Now we’re talking about parallel structure. If we want to emphasize it in the second example, we can add to before each verb:

  • “I have to pack for this trip, to call some friends, and to plan what I’ll be doing there”.

Good News: Anyone Can Master Parallel Structure

You don’t have to sign up for yet another online course to master parallel structure. It’s something you can learn and practice alone.

When all verbs in a sentence are in the same form or tense, you create a smooth flow that makes an impression and makes you sound more native or fluent. If you use an -ing verb when listing a few verbs, make sure the remaining ones take the same form. “I like swimming, eating nice food, and watching movies”. It’s really simple when you think of it this way.

These simple sentences will take you to more complex ones, and you’ll be the master of parallel structure before you know it!

Hero image by Bonnie Kittle on Unsplash