Thursday, April 12, 2012

Strengthening Sentences: Parallelism

There are two very important issues on the table today:

1.) Going to "" will not get you anywhere near the blogosphere.  My fingers and brain were apparently at a disconnect this morning -- I wanted to write a blog while they wanted to purchase a new domain name.  I'm not even sure what one would use "" for anyway.  It sounds illicit.  And unwashed.

2.) Parallelism.  We're going to spend the majority of our time on this one today, mostly because it's the more important of the two.  And also because I'll feel the urge to shower if I say "blooger" too many times.

So what the heck is parallelism, anyway?  I mean, sure, everyone learns the difference between parallel and perpendicular lines in third grade, but how does that have anything to do with writing?

Parallelism as related to writing (according to the smart folks over at American Heritage Dictionary) is "the use of identical or equivalent syntactic constructions in corresponding clauses or phrases." 

Sweet.  A bunch of fancy-pants English major jargon.  Put simply, parallel structures in writing are sentences with multiple parts (usually a list of clauses) that are put together with the same kinds of pieces.  Usually parallel sentences flow rather nicely.  In fact, one of 'em snuck into the beginning of this blog post:

"I wanted to write a blog while they wanted to purchase a new domain name."

If we throw on the x-ray goggles and take a look at how these individual parts play out, it would look something like this:

[subject] + [infinitive verb] + [direct object] while [subject] + [infinitive verb] + [direct object]

See how the structure is identical on both sides of the "while"?  That's parallelism.  The same basic premise applies when you're working with a list of activities.  Let's take a look at two quick excursions into Bob's morning, one built with a parallel construction and the other without:

Not-So-Parallel: Bob threw a poodle out the window, is going to the store, and he might slash the tires on Stephen's Celica.

Ew.  Not only is he a jerk (and apparently apt to damage my property), Bob can't build parallel sentences to save his life.  It checks out something like this with the grammar glasses on:

[subject] + [past-tense verb] + [prepositional phrase] /// [infinitive verb] + [prepositional phrase] /// [subject] + [auxiliary verb phrase] + [object]

Now let's take another foray into Bob's cruel existence, this time spiced up with a dash of parallelism:

Parallel: Bob punched a kitten in the throat, threw an old lady into traffic, and purchased weapons at WalMart.

Geez ... he's still a jerk, but at least this sentence flows a little nicer.  That's because all three of those share the same grammatical construction:

[subject] + [past-tense verb] + [direct object] + [prepositional phrase]

Now, even if you're not so familiar with the specific parts of grammar, you can still check sentences for parallelism by asking yourself a few questions.  The guilty party is most often the verb.  Keep them in line by considering the following:

Are my verbs the same tense?
Are all of my verbs doing the same job in the sentence?
Am I using the same kinds of verbs?
Does it sound odd or choppy when read aloud?

Read this out loud to yourself.  No, I don't care that your roommate is staring at you.  Throw a shoe at him (or her) and do it anyway: I enjoy long walks on the beach, eating gourmet food, and to stargaze on a clear night.

Doesn't that sound funny?  Obviously "it sounds right" won't always going to lead you to the correct answer, but often times it will help you nail sentences with parallelism issues.  So go, grasshopper, off into the fields of writing, never to be perplexed by parallelism again.  And while you're at it, come up with a good use for  That's going to bother me all day.

1 comment:

  1. I'm glad you tackled this one. Parallelism is one of those difficult to explain roadblocks for readers.