3 Problems of Parallel Structure

By Mark Nichol

Faulty combination of elements in sentences is a common syntactical flaw. Here are three examples of this type of organizational error.

1. “She is bright, creative, and has much to share.”
This sentence, in which the predicate includes two adjectives following a verb, then a conjunction and a verb phrase, is out of balance. The subject is credited with three attributes, and they must share one verb, or each must have its own verb. The sentence initially appears to follow the former rule, but then another verb appears. The only way to maintain this structure is to combine bright and creative into a single item: “She is bright and creative and has much to share.” (Note that the comma after creative is no longer necessary.)

Alternatively, creative could be assigned its own verb, but it — and the final phrase — would require a proprietary repetition of the pronoun as well: “She is bright, she is creative, and she has much to share.”

2. “We’ve saved a lot of money by using less paper, less water, less energy, and by creating less waste.”
Savings have occurred thanks to two factors: 1) use of less paper, water, and energy and 2) less production of waste; this sentence fails to structure this description correctly. The list of three items is distinct from the second element of the sentence, so it must include a conjunction between the second and third items: “We’ve saved a lot of money by using less paper, less water, and less energy and by creating less waste.” (Note also that because “less energy” is no longer mistakenly regarded as the penultimate item in a list of four things, no comma is necessary after the phrase.)

3. “His positive energy and willingness to work hard on every assignment is key to his success.”
When two nouns separated by a conjunction follow an adjective, the adjective generally applies to both nouns, but here, positive applies only to energy, so the pronoun must be repeated before willingness to clarify that “positive willingness” is not implied: “His positive energy and his willingness to work hard on every assignment is key to his success.”

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12 Responses to “3 Problems of Parallel Structure”

  • ava

    “His positive energy and his willingness to work hard on every assignment is key to his success.”

    From the article above…I would have said “His positive energy and his willingness to work hard on every assignment are keys to his success.”

    Is this wrong? And if not, why wasn’t your example of “correctness” written this way?

  • Diana Clark

    3. ( …) “His positive energy and his willingness to work hard on every assignment is key to his success.”

    ‘scuse me but can you please explain why, with two subjects, the verb in this sentence is not plural? Shouldn’t this be “His energy … and … willingness ARE key to his success”?

  • Dale A. Wood

    This is a good article because I have seen that lack of knowledge of parallel structure in English is pervasive – and especially in BRITISH ENGLISH and in the writing of supposed professional journalists. These “writers” do string words together willy-nilly with no notions of structure. “Structure” might as well be a word in Russian to them.

    So many newspapers, et cetera, have slashed their staffs of editors and proofreaders that things have become pathetic. There is nobody left to teach young journalists to do things correctly and to correct their arrant mistakes, too.

    In case you do not know what “arrant” means, please look it up in a good dictionary. An “arrant mistake” is not an “itsy bitsy” one.

    D.A.W.

  • Matt Gaffney

    The writer’s corrected third sentence, “His positive energy and his willingness to work hard on every assignment is key to his success,” is not quite correct.

    The subject and predicate don’t agree, i.e., the compound subject, “His positive energy” plus “his willingness . . . assignment,” takes a plural verb. The predicate adjective is still “key.”

    The correct corrected sentence is “His positive energy and his willingness to work hard on every assignment ARE key to his success.”

  • Mues Shrestha

    Similar to the earlier comment, just wanted to know which one is the correct form.

    His positive energy and his willingness to work hard on every assignment is (the) key to his success.

    His positive energy and his willingness to work hard on every assignment are (the) key to his success.

    His positive energy and his willingness to work hard on every assignment are (the) keys to his success.

  • Nick Trusiewicz

    Example 1. This may be correct, but sound wordy and stilted. The “wrong” phrasing seems much clearer, and is simpler to read and understand. I doubt anyone would misinterpret it.

    Example 2. Rather than repeating the conjunction, I would suggest “We’ve saved a lot of money by using less paper, less water, and less energy, thereby creating less waste,” assuming this is a complete list of the actions taken to create the conclusion. Otherwise, the sentence would benefit from a complete restructuring.

    Example 3. This correction sounds natural and clarifies the sentence. It does not seem to interrupt the flow of ideas, although I do agree that the verb should be plural, as mentioned above.

  • Mark Nichol

    Matt:

    Some qualities are so closely related that they can be considered a single characteristic, as in this case. Either verb form is appropriate.

  • Jean Kearsley

    Matt ~

    Or, viewing “key” not as a predicate adjective, but as an equivalent to each of the elements of the compound subject, “His positive energy and his willingness to work hard on every assignment are keys to his success.”

  • Jean Kearsley

    Mark ~

    Sorry, I don’t buy it! I don’t think “energy” and “willingness to work hard” are even near to being so closely tied as to constitute a single entity.

    I might buy your premise in a case like “the bow and arrow constitutes a quantum leap forward in weaponry” or “a coat and tie is often required for admission to fine dining establishments.” In each of those situations, we’re dealing with single concepts which happen to comprise more than one object . . . and even though each element has a ‘life of its own,’ together they share a “Marco” “Polo” quality, each one eliciting the other in their shared context.

    As to the qualities you’ve yoked here in the service of a singular verb, I can’t see how they’re any more intuitively a natural pairing than any other two of the scores of good qualities that might be found in an ideal employee.

  • Michael Tevlin

    The editor’s corrected sentence #2 is fine: “We’ve saved a lot of money by using less paper, less water, and less energy and by creating less waste.”

    But I would do it this way: “We’ve saved a lot of money by using less paper, water and energy and by creating less waste.”

    In #1, a one-word adjective synonym for “has much to share” would make it easy to recast the sentence with parallel structure, e.g., “She is bright, creative and resourceful.” (Resourceful doesn’t quite cut it, though.)

  • Tom

    Mark,

    Thanks for this. Disputes aside, this article has cleared up an area of the grammar universe where I was a bit fuzzy.

  • Tom

    And of course I misplaced my modifier…

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