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Fun with “parallel constructions”!

Hey boys and girls! Today’s topic is “parallel constructions.” Why, in God’s name, do I want to discuss something with such a horrible sounding name?

Parallel construction is the art of keeping lists in your writing consistent, whether it’s a list of things you’re going to do on vacation, a list of things that drive you crazy about Microsoft, a bullet list of key things to go over at your next meeting, or eating things that make you happy.

Did you catch that? That last phrase, “or eating things that make you happy,” doesn’t belong with the rest. While I’m all for eating things that make me happy (fried chicken, calamari, and oysters take top honors there), the first three items are lists, while the fourth item is not. If I can think back to Mrs. Gilhooly’s 10th grade English class, I believe it’s called a gerund phrase, but don’t quote me on that.

“WHY THE HECK DOES THIS MATTER!?” you may be asking. Well, you may not know it, but using parallel construction in your writing makes things clearer to your readers. Parallel construction is like a good roof. If it’s done properly, you won’t notice it’s there. But if it’s not, you’ll get a ton of snow and your roof will collapse, opening it up to the elements (bats, geese, poltergeists, etc.), making you sad.

Here’s an example of some “marketing-speak” I am making up for a yet-to-be-made movie about Mars, using un-parallel construction in the first instance and corrected in the second:

  • The CGI-heavy special effects will leave you breathless!
  • The acting will leave you speechless!
  • The lack of oxygen in the theater, reproducing the feeling of actually being on Mars, will leave you breathless!
  • Featuring a marvelous film score by Ratt that will leave you breathless!

Corrected, employing parallel construction:

  • The CGI-heavy special effects will leave you breathless!
  • The acting will leave you breathless!
  • The lack of oxygen in the theater, reproducing the feeling of actually being on Mars, will leave you breathless!
  • The marvelous film score by Ratt will leave you breathless!

There we go – not so bad, right? Note that while describing the acting as something that will leave you speechless may be technically correct, if three out of four of your bullet points refer to breathlessness, you should stick to that. And the fourth item about Ratt’s film score has now been corrected to “parallel” the other three in its syntax.

William Strunk uses a familiar biblical example in The Elements of Style, which Berkshire will be reissuing soon as the Berkshire Elements of Style, updated for the weird world we find ourselves in today:

  • Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
  • Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.
  • Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.
  • Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.

And now for my smart-alecky “unparallel” version:

  • Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
  • They that mourn are great: for they shall be comforted.
  • Blessed are the meek: the meek shall inherit the earth, so they too are great.
  • People who are hungry and thirsty for righteousness are blessed: for they shall be filled, ideally with fried chicken.

Doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, does it? Parallel construction is, essentially, making sure that your writing compares apples to apples. If you want your readers to understand your writing – especially people whose native language is not English – it’s essential to be clear and consistent.

I hope this has been useful to people! Please email us with any thoughts or questions you may have about this and other tips for better writing in English. We’re glad to hear them, and it will give us more grist for the mill when we’re considering things to add to The Berkshire Elements of Style.

– Bill Siever

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