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Parallel Structure & How to Make a Neat List

Written by Jincy Kornhauser at Pearson Tutor Services

Parallel structure, we are told, is essential to a well-made sentence, yet many writers really don’t know what the phrase means. In order to investigate, let’s start at the beginning: Not all sentences require parallel structure. If a sentence does not contain a list of two or more things, then we don’t need to worry about parallelism.  Parallelism is all about neat, tidy lists.

When we put lists of things—phrases, clauses, terms—in a sentence, these things should all be, syntactically speaking, parallel.  I’ll get back to “syntactically speaking” in a moment, but right now, let’s look at this sentence (I’ve underlined each of four items in the list):

If you want to put on a fabulous Thanksgiving dinner, be sure to get a big enough bird to feed everybody, strew marshmallows all over your canned squash, cranberry-orange relish, and not inviting relatives who really don't like each other.

Does this have parallel structure? It’s easy to check. How? Well, if the items are parallel, it should be possible to make a good sentence using any one of them by itself.  All you have to do is imagine it expressed as four sentences, each of which ends with one of the four items in the list:

  • If you want to put on a fabulous Thanksgiving dinner, be sure to get a big enough bird to feed everybody. (Good!)
  • If you want to put on a fabulous Thanksgiving dinner, be sure to strew marshmallows all over your canned squash. (Good!)
  • If you want to put on a fabulous Thanksgiving dinner, be sure to cranberry-orange relish. (Whoops!)
  • If you want to put on a fabulous Thanksgiving dinner, be sure to not inviting relatives who really don’t like each other.  (What?)

As you can see, two of the items in the list are not parallel in structure to the other two, so when we try to make sentences with them, the sentences don’t work. In order to correct the original sentence, we must make them all identical in structure. There isn’t just one way to correct such a sentence, but, as we’ve seen, there’s an easy way to make sure we’ve done it effectively.

Here are two possible revisions, both of which are parallel in structure:

If you want to put on a fabulous Thanksgiving dinner, be sure to get a big enough bird to feed everybody, strew marshmallows all over your canned squash, make cranberry-orange relish, and refrain from inviting relatives who really don't like each other.

If you want to put on a fabulous Thanksgiving dinner, you need a big enough bird to feed everybody, marshmallow-topped canned squash, cranberry-orange relish,  and absolutely no relatives who really don't like each other.

Note that the first revision has a parallel list of four predicates, while the second has a parallel list of noun phrases. Still, if you double-check either revision, you’ll see that the list is tidy.

This brings us to “syntactically speaking.” The “things” that have to be parallel in a list are sentence elements. Sentence elements can be parts of speech (nouns, adjectives, adverbs, verbs, etc.) as well as phrases (adjective phrases, noun phrases, adverbial phrases, infinitive phrases), predicates, and clauses (dependent and independent). You can’t make a parallel list using two nouns and a verb; you can’t make one using two independent clauses and one dependent clause; you can’t make one using a predicate, a noun phrase, and an adjective phrase. All the members of the list must be the same sort of sentence element.

Now, you may be a little rusty on the meanings of some of these sentence elements, but that shouldn’t stand in your way so long as you can look at your sentence and see its skeleton. (All sentences have them!). In our original sentence, the skeleton was:

If you want to put on a fabulous Thanksgiving dinner, be sure to W, Y, Y, and Z.

Once you’ve identified the skeleton, you’re ready to plug W, X, Y, and Z in—one at a time—to make sure your list is parallel. If it’s not, you’ll know it right away, just as you knew that “be sure to cranberry orange relish” had something seriously wrong with it. Deep down, you can tell a well-structured sentence from a poorly-structured one.

So:  If your sentence structure is not parallel, identify that skeleton and tidy up that list!

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Writing Skills how to make a neat list, parallel structure, parallel structure examples, parallel structure sentences, parallelism, writing tips

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