5 “Not This . . . But That” Parallelism Problems

By Mark Nichol

Just as “not only . . . but also” constructions often stymie writers (see this recent post on the topic, and search the Daily Writing Tips site for “not only . . . but also” to find several others), similar syntactical phrasing can be difficult to form correctly.

1. “The movie achieves its effects, not by threatening to show you something hideous, but by getting under your skin and into your head.”
This sentence constructs the comparative phrases (“not by [this] but by [that]”) correctly, but the internal punctuation is superfluous: “The movie achieves its effects not by threatening to show you something hideous but by getting under your skin and into your head.”

2. “I caution her not to rely so heavily on what she thinks others would do, but on her own intuition.”
Because the verb rely applies to both comparative phrases, as achieves does in the first example, both the phrase beginning with not and the one beginning with but should follow the verb; the phrase describing the recommended strategy should also be revised to more thoroughly parallel the description of the person’s original approach: “I caution her to rely not so heavily on what she thinks others would do but to depend, rather, on her intuition.”

3. “He films it in a way that doesn’t suggest good taste, but colossal presumption and delusion.”
This sentence has the same error of parallelism as the preceding one; the verb suggest should precede both the not phrase (here, its beginning is disguised as doesn’t) and the but phrase: “He films it in a way that suggests not good taste but colossal presumption and delusion.”

4. “But the story here is not one of privacy infringement so much as the way real estate is changing because of technology.”
The comparative phrasing here is incomplete; a repetition of is within a mirroring verb phrase must be inserted before the concluding phrase: “But the story here is not one of privacy infringement so much as it is the way real estate is changing because of technology.”

5. “They accomplished this task both by utilizing the built-in transformation tools and creating their own.”
Both is correctly positioned only if by is repeated before the verb in the second part of the compound phrase: “They accomplished this task both by utilizing the built-in transformation tools and by creating their own.” Otherwise, both should switch places with by: “They accomplished this task by both utilizing the built-in transformation tools and creating their own.”

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4 Responses to “5 “Not This . . . But That” Parallelism Problems”

  • Vincent

    “utilizing the built-in transformation tools”

    The use of “utilize” is probably somewhat justifiable in that particular case, but it still makes me cringe…

  • Lisa Jey Davis

    # 1 needs at least one comma. I don’t know what’s going on with editing these days. Perhaps it’s a response to rampant overuse of commas but it makes reading difficult, and the risk of misinterpretation great. I actually think the example was much more readable and accurate.

  • thebluebird11

    @Lisa: I agree. I think I need to pause there for a breath to absorb the first part of the sentence before I rush into the second part.

    Also, I think that many of these errors occur when people are speaking (faster than they can think ahead), but of course when you have the luxury of time while you’re writing, closer attention should be paid to getting all the little words in their correct places.

  • Ariela

    Following the reversed order of the elements of negation in #2 and #3, I would change #4 (underline marks enclose the changes):

    But the story here is _one not_of privacy infringement so much as _of_the way real estate is changing because of technology.”

    I also added the preposition “of” to the second clause to better parallel the first clause.

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