Parallel Structures Build Better Sentences

Parallel structures

The use of parallel structures, also called ‘parallelism’, is one of the less talked-about techniques in writing. It’s a way to make sure you communicate with clarity and precision.

It’s a method of constructing sentences and lists that makes your writing smoother and definitely more professional.

In simple terms, parallelism is consistency in the grammatical forms of your sentences. The key is to be aware of the parts of speech you are using.

How does it work?

It’s easier to demonstrate by giving you examples:

She preferred to leave immediately rather than waiting for the customary speeches.

There is no parallelism here. The first bolded item is a verb infinitive; the second is a gerund (a ‘sort of’ noun formed from a verb).

The point is they don’t match.

To produce a better sentence, you would use two verb infinitives:

He decided to leave immediately rather than (to) wait for the customary speeches.

Now they match and you have a parallel structure; the second ‘to’ is optional.

You could use two gerunds (…ing forms) but I think it’s slightly less elegant and you would need to make other adjustments:

He decided leaving immediately was better than waiting for the customary speeches.

Parallel structures in lists

When a sentence contains a list, parallel structures tend to be even more important, if your readers are to follow the ‘gist of the list’.

Consider this example:

There were so many things she had wanted for Christmas: books; going on a Mediterranean cruise; to have a new pair of leather pumps; and getting a serious pampering at the spa. She received not a single one.

Good wishlist; shocking sentence. 

It’s a mishmash of nouns, verbs and gerunds. No serious attempt at consistency.

To improve this one, I would definitely go for nouns. Both sentences suggest my choice is a good one; we find out ‘she received not a single one’ of those ‘things’ (and ‘things’ are nouns) .

It’s also an easy fix. Here it is:

There were so many things she had wanted for Christmas: books; going on tickets for a Mediterranean cruise; to have a new pair of leather pumps; and getting a serious pampering at the spa. She received not a single one.

Much better.

In dot-point lists, you follow the same pattern. It’s not only smoother and clearer, it’s also visually pleasing to have matching terms:

This list uses adjectives all the way though.

Candidates should be:

  • Familiar with the software programs described in the application form
  • Experienced in customer management protocols
  • Willing and available to complete further training.

It could be written with verbs in each of the points (with a few minor adjustments).

Candidates should:

  • Demonstrate familiarity with the software programs described in the application form
  • Have broad experience in customer management protocols
  • Show their willingness and availability to complete further training.

Either way, there is consistency in the list. Each point also completes the sentence that begins with ‘Candidates …’.

See my article The Art Of The Dot Point List, which explains this and other techniques that will improve your lists.

I am also available to provide writers (particular non-specialists) with advice, practical help and editing services (notice the parallelism ?).

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