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Osceola Writing Center

Parallelism / Parallel Structure

While parallelism can be discussed in terms of paragraphs, this section will focus on paralellism at a sentence level.

What is it?

In writing, parallelism is the use of the same kind of words, phrases, or structures within a sentence or list.

Think of 2 parallel lines:

An image of parallel lines

These lines are the "same" because they are both going the exact same direction. It should be the same way within your sentences, except instead of using lines, you are using words, phrases, and clauses.

Problems happen when these items don't "line up." Instead, if you have different grammatical forms, it's like having lines that are going in different directions. In the end they will intersect, causing a "grammar accident."


A picture showing intersecting lines.


Here's an example of a sentence that has a list with non-parallel units:

My professor likes teaching, to watch movies, and happy.

All of the items in the list are different grammatical types:

teaching = gerund

to watch movies = infinitive phrase

happy = adjective

As a result, our sentence is like the 2nd picture above, and the parts of the sentence collide in an ugly way rather than move our thoughts along smoothly.

Here's how the sentence should look using parallelism:

My professor likes teaching, watching movies, and being happy.

Now everything in the list starts with a gerund (the -ing words).


How to Fix

For lists:

If you are listing things, you need to make sure that every item in your list is the same grammar type. For example, if your list starts with an adjective, every other list item should be an adjective.

Ex: He is kind, funny, and talkative. (all adjectives)

Keep in mind that sometimes we "reuse" words when we start a list:

Ex: I like to play soccer, wear jeans, and write poetry.

In this list, these are all infinitives (to + verb). Even though the only item in the list that has "to" is the first item, the "to" goes with all the other items as well. This only works if we have the "to" with the first item only. If we add a "to" to any of the other items, the list is no longer parallel.

Ex. I like to play soccer, wear jeans, and to write poetry.

(now one item is not the same because we've broken the rule- either we need all items to use "to", or only the 1st item)


For comparisons:

If you are comparing 2 things, make sure that the things you are comparing are both the same kind of grammatical form.

Not parallel: I prefer to dance (infinitive) rather than singing (gerund).

Parallel: I prefer to dance (infinitive) rather than to sing (infinitive).

Parallel: I prefer dancing (gerund) rather than singing (gerund).


With correlative conjunctions (either...or, not only....but also, etc):

Just like with the other examples above, we just need to make sure the 2 parts of our correlation are the same type of word/phrase/clause. For these, you'll need to pay attention to where you put the verb.

If the verb comes before the correlative conjunction, you need only add something that fits with the verb.

Parallel: The Maryland Children's Orchestra not only has children, but also play songs written by children.

Not parallel: The Maryland Children's Orchestra has not only children, but also play songs written by children.

If the verb comes after the correlative conjunction, you'll need to include a verb in the 2nd part as well.

Parallel: The post office either is on 4th street, or it is on 9th avenue.

Not parallel: The post office either is on 4th street or 9th avenue.

With coordinating conjunctions (for, and, not, but, or, yet, so):

Make sure the items that come before and after the coordinating conjunction are both the same grammar type.

Not parallel: Anita doesn't want dogs (noun) or to visit (infinitive) relatives.

Parallel: Anita doesn't want to have dogs or (to) visit relatives. (both infinitive phrases)


*The above areas are not a definitive list of times when you need to use parallel structure. For more information see below.


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