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Author: Gavin McCall

This lesson teaches parallelism and how to fix common mistakes.

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Welcome to English Composition. I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me. What are we going to learn today? We'll be looking at parallelism, what it is, and how writers can use it to maximize the effectiveness of their essays and other writing projects. Then we'll check out some example sentences to make sure we understand what parallelism can do for our writing.

For those unfamiliar with the term, in the context of writing at least, parallelism is the use of repeating grammatical or syntactical structures to emphasize similarities between ideas. This can be played to words, phrases, and clauses. A write who uses parallelism effectively can enhance the reading experience for his or her texts, because parallel constructions are pleasing to readers and to listeners. They can just be an effective rhetorical device.

One way writers use parallelism is to make contrasting elements more apparent, creating an emphasis on these distinctions. One of the best-known examples of parallelism was spoken in July of 1969 on the moon. As Neil Armstrong famously said, "that's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." His words created a parallel between his one small step and giant leap that all of mankind had made in sending one of its kind to the moon. This was the first time anyone had ever stepped onto a surface foreign to our planet, and in his simple parallel structure, Armstrong captured some of the symbolism behind that seemingly simple, incredibly complicated action.

Of course there are other famous and often repeated examples of parallelism. We tend to remember them, because we, as readers, writers, and listeners, are drawn to effective parallelism in language. Another famously parallel sentence comes in John F. Kennedy. "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country."

Here, the then president uses parallelism to reverse the generally accepted notion that politicians should make promises about what exactly they, and the government they represent, will do for the people. But by turning it around in such a simple, grammatical way, he managed to not only make a comment about people's expectations of their government, but also to comment on the nature of government itself. After all, it's made up of people doing things, isn't it?

And now for one more example. This one isn't as commonly known, but it's one of my favorites from the French writer and philosopher Henri Bergson. "To exist is to change, to change is to mature, to mature is to go on creating oneself endlessly." I like this example of parallelism, mostly because of the way its grammatical progression mirrors the physical and intellectual progression that Bergson was talking about. And there's something about the end, about how much longer to go on creating oneself endlessly, sounds after the two shorter thirds before it that really demonstrates the endless of what he was getting at.

Now that we've seen some of the most effective uses of parallelism, it's time to talk about what happens when writers don't follow through with parallel constructions. It's jarring for readers, and usually grammatically correct. So it's important for writers to know how and when these structures are most necessary and most commonly misused. Parallel constructions can be found in almost any part of writing, but they're most common in lists or in writing that's comparing things, or when using a correlative conjunction, which requires both partners to appear in the sentence in order for the parallel construction to be complete.

Essentially, these are parts of writing in which a reader's expectations will be disappointed if the writer does not follow through with a parallel construction. Now, let's take a little time and look at some examples of incomplete parallelism and then complete them. That way, we can see the difference doing so in our own writing can make.

First, let's look at misuse of correlative conjunctions. For those who don't remember, these are two conjunctions used in pairs to connect clauses. However, they require parallel construction in order to be grammatical and to look and sound good. Take this sentence, for example. "The strikers want to be both listened to and to be taken seriously."

This should sound a little wrong, because it is. The clause after the second conjunction, and, doesn't mirror the first. Now check out what happens when we sync them up. "The strikers want to be both listened to and taken seriously." This should just sound better, because your expectations of parallelism are being met now.

One of the other common ways writers mix up parallel constructions is when comparing two or more things. Take this sentence for example. "Hiking is much more fun than to just jog around your neighborhood." Here, there's a discord between hiking and to just jog, but if we make them match, it comes out better. "Hiking is much more fun than jogging around your neighborhood."

Or, as a different kind of example, take this. "His exercise routine is much more hardcore than me." Here, the sentence is not only ungrammatical-- you shouldn't use "me," but "I," technically-- it's also not parallel. Unless we are actually trying to compare his exercise routine and the entirety of the person that is the speaker, "me," we should probably say something like this. "His exercise routine is much more hardcore than mine." Now we've got a sentence that makes sense and sounds better to boot.

Lists are another way writers can and sometimes cannot fulfill their reader's expectations of parallelism. If I said, for example, "there's nothing better than going to the beach, getting in the water, and to soak up some sun," you'd be practically screaming at me to fix that last part, since by the time you get to it as a reader, you're expecting it match the earlier constructions. See how much better this sounds. "There's nothing better than going to the beach, getting in the water, and soaking up some sun."

Now, look at this one. "This morning I got out of bed, eat a piece of toast, and take a shower." Again, the sentence is ungrammatical since two of the three verbs don't match the tense signaled by "this morning," but part of the reason you, as a reader, probably reacted negatively to this sentence was its lack of parallelism. This should suit you much better. "This morning I got out of bed, ate a piece of toast, and took a shower." Now it's working on multiple levels.

What did we learn today? We learned about parallelism, what it is, and how it works. Then we covered the benefits of using it before looking at some examples of substances that do and do not fulfill readers' expectations. I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me.

Terms to Know

The use of repeating grammatical or syntactical structures to emphasize similarities between ideas.