You may think that concepts like balance and symmetry are exclusive to math and the visual arts, but they are also relevant to English. In the English language, there is a certain logic to grammar rules that allows sentences to flow naturally and fall comfortably on the ear.
Generally, when a sentence sounds off, it is because it is unbalanced; to put it another way, an English sentence might sound strange due to a lack of parallelism.
This begs the question: What is parallelism in English? More importantly, why does it matter? In order to answer these questions, let’s begin with a definition of the term:
What is Parallelism in English?
Parallelism refers to two or more sentences or clauses that contain similar grammar structures. For this reason, parallelism is often called “parallel construction” or “parallel structure.” When sentences are balanced, they are easier to comprehend. Parallel structures convey their messages more effectively.
To one degree or another, parallelism is fundamental to the English language. If parallelism is missing in a statement that requires it, the sentence sounds awkward, confusing, or simply wrong.
In general, parallelism is a rather broad term that can refer to a balance of parts of speech, verb forms, noun quantities, or subject matters. It is also commonly used in poetry and literature to create balance and artistic embellishment.
Often times, faulty parallelism is more noticeable than the proper form. Since parallelism is a somewhat abstract concept, let’s take a look at a few correct parallelism examples and a few parallelism errors.
Examples of Parallelism
There are several ways that you can use parallelism when speaking or writing in English. First, let’s look at how to balance parts of speech in two clauses or sentences:
Parts of Speech
When making a list or referring to similar things or activities, you will need to keep the parts of speech consistent. Here is an example of a sentence that is NOT balanced:
AWKWARD: I enjoyed the party and watching the fireworks.
In the sentence above, the primary verb is “enjoy,” which is followed by two direct objects, “the party” and “watching the fireworks.” The format of the sentence is awkward because these objects are not in parallel. “Party” is a noun while “watching the fireworks” is a gerund phrase.
The sentence looks and sounds better if the parts of speech are balanced (i.e. both objects are either nouns or gerunds).
CORRECT: I enjoyed the party and the fireworks.
CORRECT: I enjoyed attending the party and watching the fireworks.
Parallelism is not just specific to nouns, gerunds, and verbs. It includes other parts of speech as well:
AWKWARD: The man threw the ball quickly and with precision.
In the sentence above, the verb “threw” should be described using two matching adverbs, rather than an adverb (quickly) and a prepositional phrase (with precision).
CORRECT: The man threw the ball quickly and precisely.
When listing more than one action done by the subject of a sentence, the verb forms in English usually must remain consistent. Here is an example of a sentence in which the verb forms do NOT match:
WRONG: The children enjoy swimming, dancing, and to play sports.
In the sentence above, the first two actions are gerunds, while the final action is in the infinitive form. Instead, the sentence should look like this:
CORRECT: The children enjoy swimming, dancing, and playing sports.
The same rule applies to the verb tenses. Here is an example sentence in which the verb forms do NOT match:
WRONG: The boy ran and jumps.
In the sentence above, the first verb is in the simple past tense, while the second is in the simple present tense. Instead, it should look like this:
CORRECT: The boy ran and jumped.
CORRECT: The boy runs and jumps.
However, this doesn’t mean that all verb forms in English must always be in parallel. Sometimes, the change in a verb form is justified by the meaning of the sentence. The best strategy here is to watch out for those rare cases when the meaning dictates which form to use.
CORRECT: Jesse ran to his class, thinking about what he would say next.
“Ran” is in past simple because it is a simple action that happened in the past. “Thinking” is a present participle, and it means that the process of thinking was happening at the same time as the process of running. “Would say” is future in the past, and we used it here because Jesse would say something in the future, but it’s only the future in relation to a point in the past.
None of these verb forms are in parallel, and yet this sentence is correct in English.
When using more than one noun category as part of the same list, the noun quantities should be either singular or plural in order to keep the sentence balanced. Here is a sentence in which the noun quantities do NOT match:
AWKWARD: When dogs, cats, or a wild animal fight, things can get ugly.
While “dogs” and “cats” are both plural nouns, “a wild animal” is singular. Instead, the sentence should look like this:
CORRECT: When dogs, cats, or wild animals fight, things can get ugly.
It is important to note that not every list of nouns requires matching quantities. This rule only applies when speaking about general nouns, not specific nouns. Here is an example where the quantities can differ:
CORRECT: The woman ordered two pizzas and a hamburger.
The sentence above is correct because it refers to specific things or specific quantities of things, not just general categories.
Finally, parallelism also applies to the content of connected clauses and sentences in English. There must be a logical balance of ideas in order for the meaning of the statement(s) to remain clear. Here are two examples that do not NOT maintain subject clarity:
ILLOGICAL: I went to the clothing store. My friend likes the color purple.
The pair of sentences above make no sense because they are not logically connected or balanced. You can change the sentences in many ways to give them parallel construction, but here is one correct example:
CORRECT: I went to the clothing store. Since my friend likes the color purple, I decided to buy her a purple dress.
Here is one more example where there is a lack of parallel construction in a single sentence:
ILLOGICAL: The woman went to the game, so the people played with the dog.
On the surface, these two clauses are unrelated. To make sense, they need to be balanced:
CORRECT: When the woman went to the game, her dog felt lonely, so the people played with him.
Parallelism in English helps make the language sound beautiful and pleasing to your senses. It also ensures that connected statements make sense and maintain a consistent grammatical construction.
Figuring out how to use parallelism may seem complicated at first glance, but it’s actually pretty simple once you break it down.
Did our article help you better understand what is parallelism in English? If you’d like to go deeper, we recommend checking out how parallelism could be tested on the GMAT and tips for answering parallelism questions on the ACT.
For more information on English grammar rules, check out the Magoosh Speaking Site today!