Parallelism, Parallel Structure, Parallel Construction

Learn about parallelism as a foundational grammatical structure in English. Learn about parallelism from a rhetorical perspective: use parallel structure to facility brevity, clarity & rhythm.
a pic of a mask mandate that lacks parallel structure a pic of a mask mandate that lacks parallel structure

What is Parallelism, Parallel Structure, Parallel Construction?

Parallelism, aka Parallel Structure or Parallel Construction, is a grammatical structure in an English sentence. A sentence uses parallelism when two or more elements in the sentence are grammatically similar or identical in structure, sound, meaning, or meter, as illustrated below.

Related Concepts: Edit for Parallelism; Voice; Tone;


Why does Parallelism Matter?

Parallel Structure matters because it’s a basic building block of the English sentence, whether the discourse is oral or written.

Parallelism is a powerful tool for writers, speakers, knowledge workers:

1. Parallelism can create a sense of rhythm and emphasis. Consider, e.g.,

“I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.”

Martin Luther King Jr.

2. Parallelism can help writers achieve brevity and simplicity, two major attributes of contemporary discourse. For instance, use of participle phrases can help organize a number of different things around one subject, thereby enabling the writer to avoid repeating a subject. Example:

“I like studying, sleeping, and going to the beach.”

Imaging how tedious that sentence would be, how primer like, if the writer said “I like studying. I like sleeping. I like going to the beach.”

3. Parallelism fosters reading comprehension because it enables readers to chunk information — elements of a sentence (e.g., words, phrase, sentence) — as coequal and related. Parallelism enables writers to add symmetry, effectiveness, and balance to their texts.

Errors in parallelism are serious because they impede communication, resulting in confused readers. When writers, speakers, knowledge workers . . . fail to use parallel structure, all hell breaks loose and confusion sets in. Atrophy happens. Online, readers click away.

Why? As readers skim through sentences, they anticipate what should follow based on their tacit knowledge of English grammar and mechanics. When a writer starts listing a series, readers expect them to complete that series with more examples. Then, when some other sentence structures are introduced and the series is not completed, readers fall off track and miscommunication happens.

Can I See Some Examples of Parallelism?

Here is an example of a sentence with incorrect parallel structure:

“I like to study, sleeping, and to go to the beach.”

In this example, which mentions three activities, the list does not use parallel structure. The terms are not parallel. There are two infinitives (to study, to go to the beach) and one gerund (sleeping). To put it another way, the three items in this list don’t match. This sentence is grammatically incorrect.

Here is an example of a sentence with correct parallel structure:

“I like studying, sleeping, and going to the beach.”

In this example, all three items in the list are gerunds (studying, sleeping, going). They match. The list is parallel, and the sentence is grammatically correct.

Why is it important to use parallel structure?

Lack of parallel structure can disrupt the rhythm of a sentence, leaving it grammatically unbalanced. Proper parallel structure helps to establish balance and flow in a well-constructed sentence; the alignment of related ideas supports readability and clarity.

Let’s look at an example:

  • Not Parallel: The President traveled to several cities meeting voters, to give speeches, and ask for campaign funds.
  • Parallel: The President traveled to several cities meeting voters, giving speeches, and asking for campaign funds.

Is not having parallel structure always wrong?

For the most part, yes. Usually an error with parallelism will throw off the rhythm of your sentence, leaving the reader confused but not certain why. These kinds of errors will not always interfere with comprehension, but they will affect the style of your writing, placing an undue burden on the reader as he or she struggles to decipher your intention. Unless you are making a specific point and want the reader off balance in that way, use parallel structure in your writing.

Parallelism in Grammatical Structures

Because sentences can contain a variety of grammatical elements, they can have parallel structure in a number of ways.

Parallel Structure in Lists

Any time you list words, phrases, or clauses in a sentence, they should have parallel structure. For example:

I like to bike, swim, and ride.

Notice that each element in the list of things that the speaker likes to do is in the same verb form. That way, it’s clear for the reader that the three elements of the sentence belong together in the same category–this list.

Inconsistent parallelism becomes pretty clear in short lists, like the one above. If you say I like to bike, swimming, and I ride a lot, you are most likely to notice that these elements don’t belong together.

Please note the use of the Oxford comma (or “serial comma”) when creating lists. The use and misuse of this comma can change the meaning of your sentences. Consider these examples:

“My heroes are my two uncles, George Washington, and Martin Luther King, Jr.”

This sentence implies you have four heroes: One uncle, another uncle, Washington, and King. 

“My heroes are my two uncles, George Washington and Martin Luther King, Jr.” 

This sentence implies that you have two uncles who are both major figures of American history.

[ Commas ]


Parallel Structure with Articles — A and An

Incorrect: I couldn’t decide if I wanted to wear a formal dress, fun skirt, or jeans and a t-shirt.

This one is tricky, but notice the use of the word “a.”

Correct: I couldn’t decide if I wanted to wear a formal dress, a fun skirt, or jeans and a t-shirt.

Incorrect: At this new job, expect to work with emerging technology, to develop innovative solutions, and collaborate with talented professionals.

Hint: Watch the word “to.”

Correct: At this new job, expect to work with emerging technology, to develop innovative solutions, and to collaborate with talented professionals.Correct: At this new job, expect to work with emerging technology, develop innovative solutions, and collaborate with talented professionals.

Parallel Structure with Correlative Conjunctions

The use of a correlative conjunction (not only … but also, either …. or,  neither … nor, both … and) requires parallel structure of both clauses or both phrases in the sentence. If a verb follows the first correlative conjunction, then a verb should follow the second conjunction in the set. Consider the alternative ways you can construct sentences around each pair of words to maintain parallel structure:

Using verbs: Whether you write or edit for the school paper, you have a very important free press responsibility to tell the truth.

Using nouns: Amber is as friendly a person as she is an informed and aware scholar.

Using prepositional phrases: Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is useful not only for businesses but also for consumers.

Using adjective phrases: There are many aspects to SEO, from the words on your page to the way other sites link to you on the web.

Incorrect: When deciding whether to travel by car or plane, travelers must consider not only the cost but also know how far the destination is.

“Cost” is a noun; “know how far” is a phrase. 

Correct: When deciding whether to travel by car or plane, travelers must consider not only the cost but also the distance.

Incorrect: Many college students must balance not only part-time jobs but also taking full-time course loads.

“Part-time jobs” is a noun; “Taking full-time course loads” is a phrase. 

Correct: Many college students must balance not only part-time jobs but also full-time course loads.

Parallel Structure with Comparisons

Incorrect: To make new friends, Jessie thought running on the track team was better than membership in the chess club.

“Running” is a gerund; “membership” is a noun. 

Correct: To make new friends, Jessie thought running on the track team was better than joining the chess club.

Parallel Structure in Voice

Incorrect: You can either pay the service fee now, or the bill can be paid later.

You should have a consistent subject (you) doing both things. 

Correct: You can either pay the service fee now, or you can pay the bill later.

Correct: The service fee can be paid now, or the bill can be paid later.

[ Voice ]

Parallel Structure in Phrases

Incorrect: Please place the football on the counter or you can put it in the shed.

Correct: Please place the football on the counter or in the shed.

Parallel Structure in Clauses

Incorrect: My parents did not approve of my actions or what I said.

Correct: My parents did not approve of what I did nor what I said.

Parallelism in Action

Incorrect: According to my taxes, I donated money to a women’s center, children’s hospitals, and a public school last year.

Correct: According to my taxes, I donated money to a women’s center, two children’s hospitals, and a public school last year.

Incorrect: I taught my sister to speak properly, eating correctly, and saying “thank you.”

Correct: I taught my sister to speak properly, to eat correctly, and to say “thank you.”

Correct: I taught my sister to speak properly, eat correctly, and say “thank you.”

Incorrect: Arts and crafts projects encourage kids to be creative, to be patient, and allows them to feel a sense of accomplishment.

Correct: Arts and crafts projects encourage kids to be creative, to be patient, and to appreciate a job well done.

Correct: Arts and crafts projects encourage kids to be creative, to be patient, and to accomplish tasks that can boost their self-esteem.

Correct: Arts and crafts projects encourage kids to be creative, to be patient, and to take pride in their work.

Incorrect: Wikipedia is an ambitious project that lacks sufficient credibility for college work but as an example of “crowdsourcing” it is intriguing.

Correct: Wikipedia is an ambitious project that lacks sufficient credibility for college work but provides an intriguing example of “crowdsourcing.”

Incorrect: To complete this ceiling fan installation, you will need a screwdriver, wrench, a pair of pliers, two standard light bulbs, electrical tape, and patience.

Correct: To complete this ceiling fan installation, you will need a screwdriver, a wrench, a pair of pliers, two standard light bulbs, electrical tape, and patience.

Incorrect: In some parts of the country, a carbonated beverage is called “soda,” whereas “pop” is used in other parts of the country.

Correct: In some parts of the country, a carbonated beverage is called “soda,” whereas in other parts of the country, it is called “pop.”

Incorrect: The best American western movies look as though they were filmed on location in the American west, but Europe was the shooting location for many of them.

Correct: The best American western movies look as though they were filmed on location in the American west, but many were actually filmed far away in Europe.

Incorrect: Many controversial works of literature have been banned from school libraries. Examples include “Howl,” a poem by Allen Ginsberg; the great Mark Twain novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; and J.D. Salinger’s young adult favorite The Catcher in the Rye; and even the Bible has found itself banned at times as well.

Correct: Many controversial works of literature have been banned from school libraries. Examples include “Howl,” a poem by Allen Ginsberg; The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the great novel by Mark Twain; The Catcher in the Rye, the young adult favorite by J.D. Salinger; and even the Bible.

Incorrect: “The vessel also has a 1,380-seat theater that will show the Broadway musical Grease, comedy club, jazz club, casino, aquatheater and karaoke bar.”

Sloan, Gene. “Largest cruise ship ever sets sail on inaugural voyage.” USA Today,23 May 2016. 

Correct: The vessel also has a 1,380-seat theater that will show the Broadway musical Grease. The theater also acts as a comedy club, jazz club, casino, aquatheater, and karaoke bar.

Exercises

Identify each sentence as correct or incorrect. Revise the sentences that are incorrect. 

  1. Circling above, the hawks scanned the ground for tiny field mice, for baby raccoons near streams, and some chipmunks were running in the wheat field.
  2. Red-tailed hawks perch on fence posts along the back road and on electric poles near the city.
  3. Doctors are encouraging patients to consume more water and exercising three times a week.
  4. The hotel clerk told Geoffrey to cancel his reservation or he should pay for the room in cash.
  5. Her father said he would take the family either to the Grand Canyon or they could see the Painted Desert.
  6. A news story on the cable networks today is not so much a news story as it is a questionable manipulation of the truth.
  7. Have watching television, using computers, and cell phones negatively impacted our culture?
  8. Is cable news today reliable, unbiased, and accurate?
  9. Employees must not only wear protective covering but also ID badges should be carried at all times.
  10. It is better to show up for work on time than running behind schedule.

Mark correct or incorrect for parallel structure. Revise the sentences that are incorrect. 

  1. During Isabella’s trip to Florence, she visited the Uffizi Museum, toured St. Peter’s Cathedral, and went shopping in Florence.
  2. To her relief, many Italians spoke English to visitors and were translating Italian for American tourists.
  3. She was most impressed by the sculptures of Michelangelo, including David, the Pieta, and the one of Moses.
  4. If you travel to Florence, be sure to visit the small shops along the narrow alleys where hand-made leather suitcases, briefcases, and purses are sold.
  5. Also, be sure to pack lightly, to purchase train tickets ahead of time, and to carry two credit cards.
  6. In her travel article, Olive Ventini claims that tourists can visit the Duomo di Firenze as long as they arrive early and taking pictures is avoided.
  7. The English-Italian dictionary is helpful not only to those who speak Italian but also many people trying to learn.
  8. Finding a cheap hotel room is difficult during winter months, but hostels are a great alternative if you do not mind sharing a room and sleeping on a hard mattress.
  9. Michelangelo, a true Renaissance man, was a great painter and he made many sculptures.
  10. Either plan to stay in Rome for several weeks or making a quick visit is a possibility.
  11. Some argue that getting enrolled into college classes is harder than to take the actual courses.
  12. According to those who practice mindfulness, it is easier to begin meditating for a few minutes than to sit for fifteen minutes.
  13. George and Martha learned it is better to trust their intuition when traveling than listening to advice from strangers. 
  14. Taking notes requires summarizing key points, highlighting details, and be sure to use a consistent method.
  15. Running the 100 meter hurdles is easier than when you run the 300 meter hurdles.

Mark correct or incorrect for parallel structure. Revise the sentences that are incorrect.

  1. At the park Jimmy enjoys climbing on the monkey bars, swinging on the tire swing, and to play in the sandbox.
  2. Gas prices are near record highs; drivers must carpool, to check their tire pressure, and driving no faster than the speed limit.
  3. Jessica made an “Aon her science project, a “B” on her math quiz, and her English quiz was 100 percent.
  4. College is difficult; students must read all the assignments, complete all the homework, and attend all the classes.
  5. In order to succeed in college, one must study hard, manage one’s time, and take advantage of opportunities for assistance.
  6. To make a good grade, reading the book, to turn in the homework assignments, and attendance must be priorities.
  7. The grade was based on the score on the final exam, the number of labs completed, and if we missed too many classes.
  8. Your assignment may be done in pencil, pen, or type it on a computer.
  9. The library has three sections: the circulation desk, the reference area, and the study rooms.
  10. Even when he works out and will eat healthy, Jonathan has a hard time keeping slim.

Mark correct or incorrect for parallel structure. Revise the sentences that are incorrect.

  1. Because Sue neither eats well nor is exercising, she has no hope of losing weight before her wedding.
  2. Yoshi loves music, conversation, and to go dancing in clubs.
  3. Steven enjoys playing video games, listening to heavy metal, and skateboarding.
  4. Leslie prefers watching television, reading a good book, or a romantic movie.
  5. Jim is always on his iPhone talking, texting, or when he checks his e-mail.
  6. The country’s biggest problems are economic, social, and the conflicts in the Middle East.
  7. In his speech, the candidate addressed the financial meltdown, the war in Afghanistan, and the health care system.
  8. Luis likes not only spaghetti and salad but also to grill burgers on the barbecue.
  9. The babysitter forgot to give the baby a bath, to wash the dishes, and to take out the trash.
  10. The job application asked for my address, my educational level, and what my work experience is.

Recommended Resources

Video on Parallel Structure

2nd Video on Parallel Structure