Writing in a parallel universe: How to achieve parallel structure in your sentences
ONLINE COLUMN: Watch Your Language
Published: June 18, 2009
|Writers work hard every day to churn out the best possible prose, and it's nice to receive some recognition. If you hope to win a Pulitzer, a National Book Award or perhaps just a positive review on Amazon, you first must compete for and win the Sentence Synchronization Award. This soon-to-be-coveted honor goes to writers who practice perfect parallelism within each sentence. |
Non-parallel sentences like "Roger has graying hair, a calm voice and never seems to hurry" will get you nowhere. In fact, they can damage your credibility. At best, readers will giggle at your misshapen sentences; at worst, they'll believe you incompetent and will stop reading your work. Nobody wants that, so I'm hoping that all of you are up for this event.
To achieve parallelism, you must make the parts of your sentences perform like those synchronized swimmers at the Olympics, who line themselves up exactly and do the same actions simultaneously. The swimmers train, train, train so that they can be synchronized, synchronized, synchronized. That is what writers must do, too. You must train yourself in the art of making sentences parallel.
Making sure elements of a sentence are parallel is a bit like making sure a subject agrees with a verb—only it's harder. Subject-verb agreement involves matching only one subject with one verb; parallelism, on the other hand, can involve multiple elements. You must undergo a tough four-step training program to compete for a Sentence Synchronization Award. Fear not; as your dedicated coach, I will be with you every step of the way.
Step 1 is to practice identifying sentences that contain like elements. A simple sentence like this won't concern those in training because it doesn't contain elements that need to be parallel: "The swimmers were beautifully synchronized." On the other hand, complex sentences that contain more than one like element must be parallel: "The swimmers had to jump into the water, swim upside down and point their toes." The like elements in this sentence are "jump into the water," "swim upside down" and "point their toes." The swimmers had to verb, verb, verb.
Moving on to Step 2, you will learn about what I call the base word, which changes with each sentence. The base word is the word that matches up with each element in the sentence. Looking back at the swimmers sentence, trainees will notice that the elements "jump," "swim" and "point" all fit nicely with the word "to," which is the base word in this sentence. It's tricky to notice a potential parallelism problem, so contestants should set aside time to practice identifying base words in sentences. Then repeat—as in, actually write down repeatedly—the base word in each sentence. Practice repeating yourself like this: "The synchronized swimmers enjoy jumping into the water, enjoy being upside down and enjoy pointing their toes." Quick, identify the base word! This exercise might not yield pretty sentences, but it is an intermediary step that if repeated enough will lead you toward the gold—I mean, award.
In Step 3, competition hopefuls will make sure that all of the elements that go with the base word are equal, at the same level, parallel. For example, this sentence is not parallel: "The swimmers decided to get out of the pool and that they needed a bite to eat." Although the infinitive "to get" and the "that" clause both go with the base word "decided," these two elements do not match each other. You need two infinitives or two "that" clauses, not one of each. If you want to try out for the event, pick one of these methods and reword this sentence now. Be sure that the parts of speech match up.
As the final training step, you will test your parallelism skills by writing normal, complex sentences. Then you'll need to ensure that the sentences are parallel in both ways: elements are parallel with the base word and elements are parallel with each other. The catch is that this time you won't repeat the base word. You'll have to jump straight into the pool without a life jacket.
Be reassured, however, that when you get to Step 4, you'll have had so much practice matching base words to elements and matching elements with elements that it will be easy for you to spot unparallel sentences. Take this ungrammatical sentence, for example: "The synchronized swimmers were agile, precise and eventually got used to their nose pinchers." What? (Negative buzz sound from the judge--me.) Not parallel: adjective ("agile"), adjective ("precise"), adverb-verb ("eventually got"). If you write a sentence like this, you will definitely not win the award. Please rewrite it now.
As your coach, I want you to win the Sentence Synchronization Award. Use the four steps as you work to correct these Criminal Sentences:
Criminal Sentence 1: "She was smart, decisive and had sound judgment."
Criminal Sentence 2: "The sadist chopped off fingers, toes and gouged out eyes."
Criminal Sentence 3: "At the top of the trail you'll want to stop for a drink, some snacks and to take
in the incredible view."
Criminal Sentence 4: "The agency spied on other countries, conducted sabotage and assassinations."
Criminal Sentence 5: "The athlete has competed in seven races, won six medals and has a chance to compete for the world record."
E-mail your rewrites to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. As a bonus, fix the sentence featuring Roger at the beginning of this article.
Practice the four steps diligently, and rest assured that if I proudly bestow the Sentence Synchronization Award on you, you won't have to wear that pinched-nose thingy as proof that you won. The proof of the pudding will be in the eating; i.e., perfectly crafted, perfectly parallel sentences that I hope will win you plenty of accolades.
Note: You can rewrite these sentences in other ways, too.
Criminal Sentence 1:
"She was smart and decisive, and she had sound judgment, too."
Criminal Sentence 2:
"The sadist chopped off fingers, hacked away toes and gouged out eyes."
Criminal Sentence 3:
"At the top of the trail you'll want to stop for some refreshments and to take in the incredible view."
Criminal Sentence 4:
"The agency spied on other countries, conducted sabotage and carried out assassinations."
Criminal Sentence 5:
"The athlete has competed in seven races, has won six medals and has a chance to compete for the world record."
--Posted June 18, 2009
|Bonnie Trenga |
Bonnie Trenga is the author of The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier: How to Solve the Mysteries of Weak Writing, available for purchase online and at bookstores nationwide. She blogs at sentencesleuth.blogspot.com, which features the daily Criminal Sentence and other posts about writing. She is also a guest writer for the popular Grammar Girl podcast. She's been a copy editor since 1996 and a mom since 2001. You can reach her at email@example.com.