We’ve all been there: you’re reading along, enjoying the subject, absorbing some info, and all of a sudden you’re thrown off course by wording that doesn’t quite make sense. If you’re like me, you have to go back and reread, maybe even a couple times, maybe even aloud. All the words and ideas are there; you just stumbled over them ever so slightly. The wording distracted you from the message.
Lots of little slips can cause this momentary confusion—this feeling of knowing what the author is trying to say, but something in the way they say it isn’t quite right. Common culprits might be unintentional sentence fragments, subject-verb disagreements, misplaced or dangling modifiers, or object pronouns when subject pronouns are needed. Today, though, I’m going to focus on a particular error that seems to trip me up most frequently: faulty parallelism.
Parallelism occurs when two or more words, phrases, or clauses that are joined by a coordinating conjunction are all of the same grammatical category. You might’ve also heard this referred to as parallel construction or parallel structure. Basically, if you’re making a list with two or more items in it, each list item has to be worded the same way.
I will hurt you if you interrupt my wine, casserole, and Netflix. ← all nouns
Brock excels at neither kicking ass nor taking names. ← both gerund phrases
Linda finally called the person whose punch card she had accidentally stolen and who was now due for a free Coffeeccino Gigantesco. ← both adjective clauses
A lot of people say that parallelism can be used as a rhetorical device to make your writing sound fancier—think Abe’s “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” or Caesar’s simple “veni, vidi, vici.” That’s true, but I think its value is way more fundamental than that: parallelism uses symmetry to improve readability and make your writing easier to process. And I’m all about aiding comprehension. 👍
The fault in our parallelism
Faulty parallelism happens when the list items are not structured the same way—when the words, phrases, or clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction do not belong to the same grammatical category.
✘ I will hurt you if you interrupt my wine, casserole, and watch Netflix. ← two nouns and a verb
✘ Brock excels at neither kicking ass nor takes names. ← a gerund phrase and a verb phrase
✘ Linda finally called the person whose punch card she had accidentally stolen and even though it was now due for a free Coffeeccino Gigantesco. ← an adjective clause and an adverb clause
To fix these, simply revise the list items so they’re all of the same grammatical category. Note, you might have to tweak the rest of sentence slightly to make it work.
✓ I will hurt you if you interrupt my wine, casserole, and Netflix. ← all nouns
✓ I will hurt you if you interrupt me while I drink, eat, and veg. ← all verbs
✓ Brock excels at neither kicking ass nor taking names. ← both gerund phrases
✓ Brock neither kicks ass nor takes names. ← both verb phrases
✓ Linda finally called the person whose punch card she had accidentally stolen and who was now due for a free Coffeeccino Gigantesco. ← both adjective clauses
✓ Linda finally called the person after she had accidentally stolen their punch card and even though it was now due for a free Coffeeccino Gigantesco. ← both adverb clauses
Stacks on stacks on stacks
Happily, there is a very easy way to test for parallelism, and it comes to us from The McGraw-Hill Handbook of English Grammar and Usage (an excellent step-by-step grammar resource if you’re ever in the market for one). To check for faulty parallelism, simply create a lil “parallelism stack” by putting all the parallel elements in a column. This will make it very easy to compare the different list items and see at a glance whether they’re worded the same way.
Let’s try it out:
? That insidious puppy will deplete your savings, pee on your pillow, and steal your friends.
The parallelism stack shows us that each list item is a verb phrase—good to go!
Here’s a slightly different sentence:
? That insidious puppy will deplete your savings, pee on your pillow, and is stealing your friends.
The parallelism stack shows us that the first two list items use the present tense, while the third uses the present progressive:
To fix it, we could turn each list item back to present tense, like it was above, or we can change them all into the present progressive:
Sometimes the parallelism stack lets us know when we have a misplaced element that throws off the comparison we think we’re making:
? My boss said I have to either give up High-Five Mondays or No-Shoes Wednesdays.
Using the parallelism stack, we can see that the first item is a verb phrase, while the second item is a noun phrase:
An easy solution is to simply move that “either” so that it’s right next to the parallel items, and so that the verb “give up” correctly applies to both objects:
The parallelism stack also alerts us when we’re breaking what McGraw-Hill calls the “pattern of modification”:
? For his eightieth birthday, Paw Paw requested a jet ski, a speedo, and bottle of gin.
The stack shows us that two list items are using a modifier (the article “a”), while the third is a bare noun:
To fix this, we can either use only one article at the beginning of the list—a jet ski, speedo, and bottle of gin—or use an article with each list item. Sometimes I prefer the latter, since that repeated “a” helps add a little emphasis:
Stackin’ in the real world
Although you should check for parallelism in all your writing because it makes for smoother, easier-to-understand prose, one real-world application where it’s especially helpful is your resume.
If your resume is bulleted (and even if it’s in little paragraphs), beginning each line the same way presents your experience with a consistent structure that’s easier for a time-crunched hiring manager to digest quickly. As an added bonus, the bullet points automatically create the parallelism stack for you!
We’ve got a simple present verb, a present participle verb, and a noun—we’re all over the place! Let’s make those all the same. And a tip: I recommend starting each line with a simple verb (e.g., plain ol’ present or past tense, rather than an –ing participle or something fancy like that). Using a verb suggests action and go-getter-iness more than a noun or other part of speech would, and using a simple verb in particular keeps your experience concise and easily digestible.
If you have a “skills” section, parallelism comes into play here as well.
For this section, it makes sense to just use a list of nice, tidy nouns (the first of which is a gerund).
Boom, resume upgraded. Now you can go get that astronaut job* no problem. Thanks, McGraw-Hill! Thanks, parallelism!
*Astronaut position with NASA not guaranteed. But at least your resume is concise and polished!