Friday, December 28, 2018

A Primer on Parallelism for Writers

by Lori Hatcher @LoriHatcher2

As a magazine editor, many of the changes I make to articles are straightforward and obvious. Fix a misplaced comma here or a missing word there. Some edits, however, are more subtle. Today I’d like to talk about one that’s common, yet harder to spot: parallelism.

Parallelism in grammar is defined as two or more phrases or clauses in a sentence or paragraph that have the same grammatical structure. Writers use this technique to help make an idea or argument clear and easy to remember. They also use it to show that each repeated structure is of equal importance. 

To use parallelism correctly when writing a list, every item should start with the same type of verb or noun, adjective or adverb format. 

We find one of the most famous uses of parallelism in Julius Caesar’s famous statement, “Veni, vedi, vedi.” “I came. I saw. I conquered.” I don’t think this statement would have risen to literary and historical fame if Caesar had said instead, “I came. I saw. Conquering seemed like the next logical step.”

Charles Dickens, another master of parallelism, used the device in the first lines of his novel, A Tale of Two Cities. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness . . .” If Dickens had said, “It was the best of times, and other times really stunk,” I don’t think we’d be commenting on it 170 years later.

Faulty parallelism can occur in several ways. Here are two examples:
  • When you write a list of things and mix up verb forms (to run, jumping, played). 
    • Incorrect: Henry likes to run, to jump, and playing outside.
    • Correct: Henry likes to run, to jump, and to play outside.
  • When you mix up adjectives or adverb forms
    • Incorrect: Grandpa walked carefully, in a slow way, and halted a lot.
    • Correct: Grandpa walked carefully, slowly and haltingly.

Well-crafted parallelism adds beauty and poetic meter to enhance and emphasize a point. What would Martin Luther King Jr.’s memorable “I Have a Dream” speech be without the soaring repetition that gave this historical speech its title?

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal.’

“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.”  

And I doubt that Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s beloved “How do I Love Thee” poem would be quite so beloved without the masterful use of the repeated phrase, “I love thee.” 

“I love thee freely, as men strive for right. I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.”

Not only does Browning use the repeated phrase “I love thee” to make the lines parallel, but she inserts the adverbs “freely” and “purely,” followed by two clauses that begin with “as” to further strengthen the poem’s soul-stirring power. 

Now that you know what parallelism is, you’ll see it everywhere. To ensure you use it properly, edit your work with an eye toward this, paying special attention to sequences and repeated words. Most of your readers can’t call parallelism by name, but they’ll notice if something isn’t right. Decades of speaking and listening have trained us to listen for the meter, cadence, and pattern of words. This is what makes parallelism a powerful and lovely literary device.



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  2. So there is a name for that. All these years, I just thought it made things read a bit easier. Thanks for the lesson Ms. Lori. God's blessings ma'am.

  3. Like Jim, I didn't know it has a name, but now I can use this device purposely. Thank you, Lori! Another tool for my toolbox.

    1. You are most welcome. Thanks for chiming in today!

  4. Thanks for the post! I didn't know it had a name either. When it is done well, the writing stands out.

    1. True that. It's powerful. It's poignant. It's parallelism. (see what I did there?) Write on, friend!

  5. Great explanation of this "obscure" literary technique.

    1. So glad you found it helpful, Ingmar. Blessings on your writing in the new year!

  6. Lori, thank you for this. I tell folks all the time that if something just doesn't sound quite right, this may be the reason. Our literary "ears" love this structure, especially in threes. It smooths the prose and engages the reader. It's one of our best tools for pulling the reader deeper into our work.

    1. I agree, Ramona, and yet there's a delicate balance between just right and over-used. I suspect I'll spend the rest of my writing life perfecting this technique, but when it's done well, ahhhhh! Blessings to you in this new year.

  7. Writing is the most interesting thing that can help us to improve our skills. Thanks for sharing!