10 Tips to Balance Parallel Sentence Structure

By Mark Nichol

In crafting sentences that compare one thing to another or represent one thought in contrast to another, writers often omit key words or phrases because they misunderstand how one phrase is balanced against another. In constructing sentences with parallel structure, think of the two parallel elements as figures on a seesaw, and the connecting word or phrase as the fulcrum, then check whether the elements on either side of the fulcrum are equally balanced:

1. “We often pay more attention to them than our own children.”
This ambiguous sentence means either that we pay more attention to something than we do to our children, or that we pay more attention to something than our children do. This slight revision reflects that the writer meant the former choice. (“We pay more attention to them” is balanced against “[we pay attention)] to our own children.”): “We often pay more attention to them than [we pay] to our own children.”

2. “His version is created not with brush and ink, but countless Lego blocks.”
The parallel phrases in this sentence, balanced by the fulcrum but, are not “with brush and ink” and “countless Lego blocks,” but “brush and ink” and “countless Lego blocks,” so repeat with: “His version is created not with brush and ink, but with countless Lego blocks.”

3. “The story here is not one of privacy infringement so much as the way real estate is changing because of technology.”
The fulcrum in this sentence is “so much as,” and the phrase “is not one of privacy infringement” must be balanced against one that starts with the same verb: “The story here is not one of privacy infringement so much as it is the way real estate is changing because of technology.”

4. “The rainwater boon isn’t so much about taste as reliability in a region where hundreds of wells dried up in the last drought.”
This sentence has the same fulcrum as the previous example does, but notice how the sentence reads more smoothly and has more impact because of the inversion of the constituent phrases: “In a region where hundreds of wells dried up in the last drought, the rainwater boon isn’t so much about taste as it is about reliability.”

5. “They protect consumers from purchasing products that are not effective or even dangerous.”
Without the repetition of the phrase “that are,” this sentence crashes to a halt with the false parallel terms effective or dangerous. Omit the first word and the fulcrum from the equation, and the resulting sentence, “They protect consumers from purchasing products that are not even dangerous,” does not retain the meaning. The point about dangerous products needs a complete phrase: “They protect consumers from purchasing products that are not effective or that are even dangerous.”

6. “They believe in cultural and racial diversity, but not diversity of opinions.”
Take away the first phrase, and you’re left with an omission in “They (don’t) believe diversity of opinions,” so the preposition in must accompany both phrases: “They believe in cultural and racial diversity, but not in diversity of opinions.”

7. “Thanks for your generous assistance and support of these books.”
If “and support” is omitted, the phrase “assistance of these books” stands out as faulty, so repair the error with one of these two options: “Thanks for your generous assistance with and support of these books,” or “Thanks for your generous assistance and for your support of these books.” Better yet, perhaps, is “Thanks for your generous assistance in supporting these books.”

8. “Beagles rely on their acute sense of smell to chase their quarry and alert hunters with their high-pitched barks.”
Beagles rely on smell to chase their quarry and alert the hunters? No. Their smelling and their barking are two parallel attributes. This sentence requires two independent clauses with parallel subjects: “Beagles rely on their acute sense of smell to chase their quarry, and they alert hunters with their high-pitched barks.” (A fulcrum assisted by a “not only . . . but also” phrase might seem useful at first glance, but that revision alters the writer’s intent.)

9. “Those who clashed with the color scheme were getting fired or relegated to the stockroom.”
Without a balance to either side of or, the sentence implies that people were getting fired to the stockroom or relegated to the stockroom. Repeating the verb clarifies that only the second option involved the stockroom: “Those who clashed with the color scheme were getting fired or were relegated to the stockroom.”

10. “Families have been leaving the city not so much because of the form housing takes but its price tag.”
The parallel phrases here are (or should be) “because of the form housing takes” and “because of its price tag.” Without the following fix to the second phrase, the reader trips into a prose pothole: “Families have been leaving the city not so much because of the form housing takes but because of but its price tag.”

Click here to get access to 800+ interactive grammar exercises!


Share


10 Responses to “10 Tips to Balance Parallel Sentence Structure”

  • codebeard

    You can also read “to chase their quarry and alert hunters” as “to chase their quarry and hunters who are alert”.

    I find parallel sentence structure to be one of the more clumsy things in English. Especially when it comes to number and verb agreement. I think that may be worth covering in a future post.

    For example, what do you suggest be done in the case of sentences such as:
    “Cereal and apples are his favourite foods for breakfast.”

    Is it wrong to use ‘are’ here, because it doesn’t agree with the number of ‘cereal’?

    (I saw a really bad case of this the other day but I can’t remember it now — sorry if my example is not very good.)

  • David OCT

    I am excellent at picking the ambiguity of the spoken word – sometimes to the amusement, more often the annoyance, of my friends – but am guilty, I am sure, of committing them myself when writing. So thanks for these examples; will scrutinise my writing more closely in the future.

  • Esteban

    I found the correction to #2 to be correct to a fault. I’ve reread the original statement over and over, and while I see that it is not technically correct in the strictest of terms, its meaning is not lost on me. Maybe I’ve just been conditioned to accept such lazy writing, but I actually find the original to be more pleasant sounding.

    On the subject of “more pleasant”, is that more commonly accepted than “pleasanter”?

  • John

    @codebeard,
    It would depend on whether the cereal and the apples were separately countable objects. To remove ambiguity, you could say “cereal with apples is his favourite food for breakfast.”

  • Precise Edit

    @Estaban Yes. “More pleasant” is more common (not “commoner”) than “pleasanter.”

    The case in which I see the most parallelism problems is when the writer is trying to describe simultaneous actions. As stated in 300 Days of Better Writing, Day 82: Use parallel grammatical constructions when describing simultaneous actions.

    Using parallel grammatical constructions means describing actions in the same way so that any words referring to all the actions make grammatical sense. Simultaneous actions are actions that occur at the same time.

    This is quickly becoming more complicated than it needs to, so let’s look at an example. Consider this sentence.

    “A good teacher SHOULD BE HELPFUL and PROVIDES CLEAR DIRECTIONS.”

    In this example, the teacher is doing two actions: (1) being helpful and (2) providing directions. The words that relate to both actions are “A good teacher.” (A good teacher should be helpful; a good teacher provides clear directions.)

    The problem is that “should be helpful” is not written in the same manner as “provides clear directions.” As such, one of these (or both) needs to change.

    Three possible revisions are as follows.
    “A good teacher SHOULD BE helpful and SHOULD PROVIDE clear directions.”
    “A good teacher should BE helpful and PROVIDE clear directions.” (This is the same as the first revision. The word “should” is implied for the second action.)
    “A good teacher IS helpful and PROVIDES clear directions.”

    In summary, find the actions that are occurring at the same time and make sure that they are written the same way grammatically.

    These are a form of “two-part” sentences, which must be grammatically / structurally parallel, as noted on Day 189: 2-part sentences need to be parallel.

    In general, a two-part sentence has two phrases or clauses that depend on each other to provide the complete information. Consider this two-part sentence.

    “The hybrid engine runs smoothly and burns fuel efficiently.”

    The first part is “runs smoothly.” The second part is “burns fuel efficiently.” They are parallel, which means they use the same grammatical structure. (This is similar to the example above from Day 82.) Now consider this faulty 2-part sentence.

    “Students learn more WHEN THEY PARTICIPATE than BY LISTENING to the teacher.”

    The first part is “when they participate.” The second part is “by listening to the teacher.” (If we leave off the second part, the sentence will be incomplete because of the word “more.”)

    These two parts are not parallel; they do not have the same grammatical structure. Either both parts need to have the “when they [verb]” structure or they need to have the “by [-ing verb]” structure.

    When we make the two parts parallel, we get the following sentences.
    “Students learn more WHEN THEY PARTICIPATE than WHEN THEY LISTEN to the teacher.”
    “Students learn more BY PARTICIPATING than BY LISTENING to the teacher.”

  • Precise Edit

    @codebeard

    Re: “Cereal and apples are his favourite foods for breakfast.” Is it wrong to use ‘are’ here, because it doesn’t agree with the number of ‘cereal’?

    “Are” is correct. He has two favorite breakfast foods: (1) cereal and (2) apples. This gives the sentence a compound subject. In fact, we can replace these two foods with “they,” which requires “are” for the verb. Notice, also, that “foods” is plural, which indicates that the sentence is describing two foods.

    On the other hand, if you write “Cereal and apples IS his breakfast food,” then he likes to eat cereal and apples together as one breakfast dish. We can replace “cereal and apples” with “it.” (Does he eat cereal and apples for breakfast? Yes, IT is his favorite breakfast meal.) Notice that I had to change “foods” to “food” in this case.

  • Toby

    7. “Thanks for your generous assistance and support of these books.”

    I believe this is a tautology. It is better to say: “Thanks for your support of these books”.

  • Justin | Mazzastick

    I just found your site after reading the guest post from Ali on Problogger. I have much homework to do here.

  • Peter Ki

    There seems to be a typographical error in the last line of the 10th tip: “Families have been leaving the city not so much because of the form housing takes but because of but its price tag.”

  • codebeard

    @Precise Edit

    Thanks for your helpful response to my comment.

Leave a comment: