How to Edit for Parallelism in Your Writing

Academic Writing

Writing and editing tips: dealing with parallel structures

A common writing issue for many people is making sure to use parallel structure in writing. In many ways, the English language operates like math. When we string words or phrases together, we must make sure that all parts are of “equal value.” That is, they must all be in the same form.

What’s the problem?

Let’s start by looking at a few examples.

  1. I like apples, oranges, and going to the zoo.
  2. The coach advised that I should eat healthily, exercise regularly, and that joining a gym would make this easier.
  3. Mary is a celebrated author, dancer, and writes great songs.

Did you notice any problems with the above sentences? We hope so. If not, never fear! After this article, you’ll become an expert at spotting parallelism issues!

Let’s take another look at the sentences written above. This time, examine the colored words and phrases below. The underlined portions indicate the parts of the sentence that serve as the triggers for parallel structures.

  1. I like apples, oranges, and going to the zoo.
  2. The coach advised that I should eat healthily, exercise regularly, and that joining a gym would make this easier.
  3. Mary is a celebrated author, dancer, and writes great songs.

Why are the red parts above incorrect?

  • Sentence 1 says, “I like noun, noun, and -ing phrase.”
  • Sentence 2 says, “The coach advised that I should: (1) verb; (2) verb; (3) that -ing phrase.
  • Sentence 3 says, “Mary is a noun, noun, and verb.”

These three sentences break parallel structure. Each of the red words in the examples above is in a different grammatical form than the other words in their respective lists.

How do we fix this problem?

There are three ways to fix a parallel structure problem. In each case, the idea is to make all the parts match in grammatical form. We’ll use the sample sentences from above to illustrate each method.

Method #1: Make the grammatically nonconforming part match the other parts.

This method is often the simplest way when you’re dealing with nonparallel words or simple phrases. Accordingly, we recommend method #1 for most cases involving parallelism issues. However, with complex phrases or clauses, you might lose some meaning, so we recommend method #3 (below) for those situations.

  Nonparallel Structure Correct Parallel Structure
1 I like apples, oranges, and going to the zoo. I like apples, oranges, and zoos.
2 The coach advised that I should eat healthily, exercise regularly, and that joining a gym would make this easier. The coach advised that I should eat healthily, exercise regularly, and join a gym. (Here, we lose some meaning regarding the fact that joining a gym would make exercising easier.)
3 Mary is a celebrated author, dancer, and writes great songs. Mary is a celebrated author, dancer, and songwriter.

Method #2: Make the other parts match the grammatically nonparallel part.

Be careful when using this method. Changing the previous parts might create repetitive phrasing (like in example 1 below), in which case, we recommend changing the nonparallel part rather than the rest of the sentence! This method will also not solve the problem of lost meaning in more complicated sentences.

  Nonparallel Structure Correct Parallel Structure
1 I like apples, oranges, and going to the zoo. I like eating apples, eating oranges, and going to the zoo (“eating” is repetitive).
2 The coach advised that I should eat healthily, exercise regularly, and that joining a gym would make this easier. The coach recommended exercising regularly, eating healthily, and joining a gym. (Here, we lose some meaning regarding the fact that joining a gym would make exercising easier.)
3 Mary is a celebrated author, dancer, and writes great songs. Mary is celebrated because she writes books, dances, and writes great songs.

Method #3: SPLIT the sentence.

Sometimes, changing a part of a sentence might require substantial restructuring, otherwise, you might accidentally change the original sentence’s meaning. In those cases, we recommend creating multiple sentences.

  Nonparallel Structure Correct Parallel Structure
1 I like apples, oranges, and going to the zoo. I like eating apples and orangesI also like going to the zoo.
2 The coach advised that I should eat healthily, exercise regularly, and that joining a gym would make this easier. The coach advised that I should eat healthily and exercise regularly. He also told me that joining a gym would make working out easier.
3 Mary is a celebrated author, dancer, and writes great songs. Mary is a celebrated author and dancer. She also writes great songs.

Watch out for tricky comparative phrases!

Most simple sentence styles that use parallel structures are connected by conjunctions like “and,” “or,” or “but.” However, there are some tricky constructions that often plague many writers: parallelism in modifying clauses (e.g., relative clauses, and participial clauses) and comparative phrases (e.g., correlative conjunctions).Watch out for tricky comparative phrases!

  • Relative clauses use “that” or “which.”
  • Participial clauses are phrases that are made from verbs and are used like adjectives. For example, “This car is built to last.”
  • Correlative conjunctions include terms like “not only…but also,” “either…or,” “neither…nor,” “if…then,” etc.
  • Comparison structures include the typical “than” or “as.”

All these types of expressions require parallel grammatical forms!

When correcting these kinds of statements, treat the comparative phrases or the second half of the correlative conjunction like equal signs and ask yourself: “Do I have the same grammar structure on both sides?”

Nonparallel Structure Correct Parallel Structure
I like the big house built in 1910 and features two great living rooms. I like the big house built in 1910 that features two great living rooms. (Eliminate the problematic parallel structure by removing the conjunction.)
Mary owns a PR company, a place giving many growth opportunities and where people are rewarded based on merit (participial phrase + subordinate clause). Mary owns a PR company, a place giving many growth opportunities where people are rewarded based on merit. (Deleting the “and” fixes the parallelism issue. This method works for most cases where a participial phrase and subordinate clause are connected by a conjunction.)
I not only like to play the violin, but also dancing. I not only like to play the violin, but I also like to dance.
OR
I like to not only play the violin but also dance.
Either we go to the store now or wait until next week. Either we go to the store now or we wait until next week.
I prefer to go on a vacation than a bonus. I prefer to go on a vacation than to receive a bonus.

Another whammy: watch verb tenses!

Another parallel structure we struggle with is verb tense shifting! Raise your hand if you have ever said something like the following:

  1. “I really like this movie, which was why I bought it.”
  2. We knew that we had little time, work had to be finished, and we needed to hurry.

Raises hand What’s wrong, you ask? Let’s look again:

  1. “I really like this movie, which was why I bought it.”
  2. We knew that we had little time, work had to be finished, and we needed to hurry.

Sentence 1 above switches from the present tense to the past tense, while sentence two throws in a passive voice structure in the middle of the list of “that” clauses. Don’t do it!  What would they look like if corrected?

  1. “I really like this movie, which is why I bought it.”
  2. We knew that we had little time, we had to finish the work, and we needed to hurry.

Parallelism Checklist

  1. Identify any conjunctions or lists in your sentence.
  2. Look at the structure of your words and phrases on either side of those conjunctions. Do you have nouns, verbs, adjectives, -ing phrases, etc. on both sides?
  3. Look at the clauses you have in a sentence. Do you have the same kind of clauses in your lists? Do you have the same type of descriptive clause describing the same thing?
  4. Are your verbs in the same tense on both sides of a conjunction and within your modifying clauses?
  5. If you have a list, does each part of the list (A, B, C, etc.) have the same grammatical form?

We hope these tips have helped clarify how to deal with parallelism in your writing! Now that you are pros, go forth and create beautiful and logically coherent phrases!

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