3 Problems of Nonparallel Interjections

By Mark Nichol

In a post published recently, I discussed simple problems of parallelism in sentence construction. Here are three examples of more complex errors involving corresponding sentence elements.

1. “Low-interest rates have been one of the primary, if not the primary factor in extending the real estate boom in the United States.”
The corresponding phrases in this sentence are neither parallel nor complete. First, the additional consideration (“if not the primary factor”) must be structured as an interjection, meaning that it has to be bracketed parenthetically by commas, em dashes, or parentheses. (Which method you choose depends on the emphasis you want to give the interjection: Parentheses minimize the interruption, commas are the default punctuation for separating an interrupting phrase from the main sentence, and em dashes call attention to the inserted phrase.)

In this case, “if not the primary factor” must be set off from the rest of the sentence with punctuation before and after; any of the three punctuation forms is appropriate. However, there’s more work to be done. The key to correctly constructing a sentence with an interjection is that if the interjection is omitted, the sentence is still complete.

But read this version of the sentence with the interjection omitted: “Low-interest rates have been one of the primary in extending the real estate boom in the United States.” Obviously, factors must be inserted after the first use of primary in additional to the inclusion of the singular form of the word in the interjection: “Low-interest rates have been one of the primary factors, if not the primary factor, in extending the real estate boom in the United States.”

2. “Talk of a name change has struck some political observers as not only a merely cosmetic, but also as a pointless gesture.”
As with the previous example, this sentence lacks a correctly framed interjection — “but also as a pointless” must be set off from the rest of the sentence: “Talk of a name change has struck some political observers as . . . a merely cosmetic gesture.” (The ellipsis marks the omission of “not only,” which as part of the “not only . . . but also” comparative device is technically a part of the interjection.)

The corrected sentence should read, “Talk of a name change has struck some political observers as not only a merely cosmetic, but also a pointless, gesture.” (Note the omission of the second instance of as.) Better yet, convert the interjection to a sentence-ending tag: “Talk of a name change has struck some political observers as not only a merely cosmetic gesture but also a pointless one.”

3. “He could have, but he didn’t, press for a clear, bilateral agreement on immigration.”
Use the interjection-omission test described above to analyze this sentence’s problem: Without the (correctly punctuated) interjection, the sentence erroneously reads “He could have press for a clear, bilateral agreement on immigration.” A hypercorrection featuring logical correspondence at the expense of readability is “He could have pressed, but he didn’t press, for a clear, bilateral agreement on immigration.” As with the previous example, the sentence is best repaired by moving the interjection to the end of the sentence: “He could have pressed for a clear, bilateral agreement on immigration, but he didn’t.”

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4 Responses to “3 Problems of Nonparallel Interjections”

  • Nelida K.

    Mark, on number 3:

    Would it be possible to correct – without affecting readability – if we were to write the sentence like this:

    “He could have pressed — but didn’t — for a clear, bilateral agreement on immigration.”

    This would have been my first choice, as it somehow highlights the fact that he could have done something and did not do it. What do you think?

    BTW, best wishes for a prosperous, healthy and peaceful 2013.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Oh, I think that all of those nonparallel interjections are simply disgusting! Thank you for mentioning this topic. Those are really beyond the pale for anyone who pretends to be writing English – or German, either.

    I am a mathematician and an engineer, and I know parallel when I see it – and besides that, my Mother was a junior high school English teacher.

    I got into a short discussion with someone at another Web site, and I told him that he just needed to look at the relationship between mathematics and the language. Then he claimed that there wasn’t any relationship between the two. Ugh!

    Shortly, I had to tell him to go get lost. There is an intimate relationship between the two things. “Parallel” is used both places, and it means about the same in both. Also quite mathematical are things like subordinate clauses and independent clauses.

    In English, things like the usual subject – verb – object sentence order are quite mathematical – things that are built in.

    I lived in Northern Arizona for a while, and I taught at the only university there (NAU). I found out some things about the Navajo language, and one thing that I read was that in this language, there isn’t any particular subject-verb-object, subject-object-verb, or object-verb-subject word order. Apparently, it is all idiomatic, sentence-by-sentence, and that whole construction sounds totally confusing to most of us. The statement was that nobody learned to speak Navajo really well unless he or she was born and raised as a Navajo. (I guess that adopted babies count, too.)

    In contrast, there are mathematics and logic in the way that sentences are put together in English and German. I don’t know much about the other languages, but I guess that this is true for all Western European languages except for maybe Basque, which they tell me is a very different language from French, Spanish, or Portuguese.

    I have been told that Spanish contains very few words from the old languages of Spain, such as Basque. However, the Spanish word for “left” (as in right – left) is one of them. The Latin word for “left” is “sinister”, but the Spanish word for “left” is completely different from this.
    D.A.W.

  • Nelida K.

    @Dale A. Wood: Indeed, in Spanish we have “derecho” for ‘right’, and “izquierdo” for ‘left’ (both inflected with a final “a” instead of the “o” to agree with the grammatical gender of the subject). But — as it happens as well in English with words of Saxon, Norman or even Latin root — we also have “diestro/a” and “siniestro/a”. For instance, to signify that someone was striking punches right and left, the preferred form is “golpeaba a diestra y siniestra”. (Inflection is fem. to agree with the implied “dirección”). But if you point the way, then you have to turn “a la izquierda” or “a la derecha”. Not as complicated as the Navajo language, but still it takes a native speaker to know unerringly which to use when.
    By the way, thank you for sharing the facts about the Navajo language, I did not know that.

  • Lauren Ruiz

    I love these types of posts. So helpful! Thank you.

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