Parallel Structure

By Laura Radford

Have you ever felt as though your writing has lost balance? While the written word can’t fall flat on its face the way that we can, it can fail to impart meaning to your reader. If you’ve ever felt an imbalance within your sentence structure, or even in the layout of a paragraph, your writing may be suffering from a lack of parallel structure. But what is parallel structure? In the simplest terms, it’s use of the same pattern of words to show that two or more ideas have the same level of importance. Parallel structure occurs at the level of a word, phrase, or clause. If your writing suffers from imbalance, what do you do? Or perhaps the better question is what do you not do?

First, do not mix forms.

Not Parallel: The art students were asked to sketch the display quickly, accurately, and in a detailed manner.

What’s happening: You might think that varying structure makes writing more interesting, but too much variance can create confusion. Each verb form (in this case, adverb form) should follow the same structure.

Parallel: The art students were asked sketch the display quickly, accurately, and thoroughly.

Why this is better: Even though you have to change “in a detailed manner” to “thoroughly,” the sentences have the same meaning. More importantly, the second version is easier to read.

Second, watch your clauses.

If you make the decision to begin a structure with clauses, you must continue using clauses. Changing to another pattern or changing the voice of the verb (from active to passive or vice versa) will upend the balance and break the parallel structure. Now, let’s visit our art class again!

Not Parallel: The professor expected that the students would present their sketches at the meeting, that there would be time for him to show his slide presentation, and that questions would be asked by the class. (passive voice)

Parallel: The professor expected that the students would present their sketches at the meeting, that there would be time for him to show his slide presentation, and that the students would ask him questions. (active voice)

Third, all listed elements after a colon must follow the same form.

Not Parallel: The art history textbook glossary can be used to find these: term definitions, works by artist, and looking up artists by work.

Parallel: The art history textbook glossary can be used to find these: term definitions, works by artist, and artist by works.

Remember, parallel work is easier to process, which your professor will appreciate!

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