5 Parallelism Problems in Sentence Structure

By Mark Nichol

It’s easy to produce a faultily constructed sentence by neglecting to install all the necessary parts. Each of the sentences below lacks a small but essential component that helps render the statement sturdy and structurally sound; read each discussion for an explanation of the flaw.

1. “Lifelong interest and enthusiasm for science is instilled through science literacy.”
Take the phrase “and enthusiasm” out of the sentence, and you’re left with “Lifelong interest for science is instilled through science literacy.” Here, the subject is followed by the wrong preposition. Omit “and enthusiasm for,” and the result is “Lifelong interest science is instilled through science literacy.” Now, the subject lacks any preposition. The solution? Each noun in the noun phrase “interest and enthusiasm” requires its own appropriate preposition: “Lifelong interest in and enthusiasm for science is instilled through science literacy.” (Depending on emphasis desired, “and enthusiasm for” may be bracketed by a pair of commas, parentheses, or em dashes but is correct without any interruptive signals.)

2. “They’re noisy, they’re tiny, weigh fifty pounds, and can be souped up from a speed of thirty-five miles per hour.”
Of the four elements in this list, two are preceded by pronouns and two aren’t. To achieve parallel compliance, all the elements must share one pronoun (“They’re noisy, tiny, weigh fifty pounds, and can be souped up from a speed of thirty-five miles per hour”), or each requires its own (“They’re noisy, they’re tiny, they weigh fifty pounds, and they can be souped up from a speed of thirty-five miles per hour”).

3. “They run farther, longer, and never get fat.”
The first two elements share a verb, and the third has its own. However, just as in the apportionment of pronouns in the example above, one verb must apply to all, or each element must have its own verb (especially if a single verb is not appropriate for all the elements).

In this case, the verbs must differ. Depending on the context, either revise the sentence so that farther and longer share the verb run (“They run farther and longer and never get fat”), or provide longer with its own verb (“They run farther, last longer, and never get fat”).

4. “John Smith is off the streets, sober, and has a job.”
The rule set forth in the previous sentence applies for simple “to-be” verbs as well. Revise the sentence to read, “John Smith is off the streets, is sober, and has a job” or “John Smith is off the streets and sober and has a job.”

5. “That opinion was uttered not by John Doe, but one of his vice presidents.”
The preposition by must be repeated at the head of the second clause to match the structure of the first clause: “That opinion was uttered not by John Doe, but by one of his vice presidents.” The sentence could be recast in active voice (“One of John Doe’s vice presidents, not Doe himself, uttered that opinion”), but the change doesn’t necessarily improve the statement.

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6 Responses to “5 Parallelism Problems in Sentence Structure”

  • Cathy

    At first glance, I would have changed the verb to “are” in the first solution: “Lifelong interest in and enthusiasm for science is instilled through science literacy.”

    Would I have been wrong?

  • Dale A. Wood

    I have talked with numerous persons about parallel construction in English – either in person or via the Internet. As a general rule, the reactions that I get from them are as follows:
    1. They don’t know what parallel construction is.
    2. They do not give a hoot about parallel construction. In other words, they do not know it, and they do not care to learn anything new.

    I call the above situation “being doubly damned”. This is blunt, but it is true.
    I do perceive a deep root to these problems concerning parallel constuction. As pupils in elementary school and middle school, they were never taught to diagram sentences, or else they were never forced to do it well. In other words, they were never given D or F grades on tests that covered diagramming sentences, and further, they were never given C, D, or F grades in English courses.

    There is “grade inflation” for you. This is also the reason why our graduates do not know the difference between {there, their, and they’re} and the differences between {your and you’re}, {were and we’re}, {bare and bear}, and {brake and brake}. This is why we see signs posted at businesses that say, “We are taking a brake. Please bare with us.” The confusion between {its and it’s} has persisted for decades.

    There are millions of people who do not know that in English, the third person singular, present tense verbs end in “s” with very few exceptions. These exceptions are in the auxiliary verbs, including some in the subjunctive mood, such as the following: can, could, let, may, might, must, shall, should, will, would.
    Some of the other auxiliary verbs that are used to form various tenses and moods end in “s” anyway in the third person, including does, has, is, and was. The tenses and moods include the present emphatic, the present perfect indicative, the present perfect progressive, the past perfect progressive, and maybe more:
    “He does like apple pie!”, “She has been eating popcorn”, “It is flying very fast”, and “He was driving 110 m.p.h. when he was arrested.”

    I sometimes get irritated when writers use “would” without realizing that is is a present subjunctive verb. They do create some very odd sentences this way: “The United States would declare its independence in 1776.” No, not right. “The United States did declare its independence in 1776, and that’s a fact.”

  • Dale A. Wood

    To: Cathy on December 28, 2012
    At first glance, I would have changed the verb to “are”.

    You are absolutely correct, Cathy!

    However, I have found that most of the writers of these columns do not pay any attention to the corrections and comments that are submitted – not even ones that point out glaring errors.

    I even asked for a response by e-mail and I gave my e-mail address right HERE, but I got no response. I wish that you do receive better than that.
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Many people do not realize that “May The Force be with you,” is in the subjunctive mood, but it is.

    Also, “Let him be hanged by the neck until he is dead, dead,” is subjunctive because that sentence might be commuted before it is carried out.

    In contrast, “He shall be hanged by the neck,” is not subjunctive because “shall” gives a specification and an order. “Shall” is used in legal documents, including contracts, quite frequently, with this meaning. I am an electronics engineer, and when I read “The unit shall be operational between the temperatures of 100 celsius and -55 celsius,” I understand what this means: it is a legal specification not to be breached.

    To get to parallel construction, sometimes lawyers use redundant phrasing such as “should, shall, and will”. How about replacing this with “must” or just using “shall”?

  • Mark Nichol

    Cathy:

    This sentence can be construed as referring to two separate qualities or to two combined qualities. I find it preferable to construct it according to the latter perception.

  • Warsaw Will

    @D.A.W. – I think we’ve already discussed your strange idea that “would” is a form of the English subjunctive elsewhere. In fact “would” has many uses, and the example sentence you give – “The United States would declare its independence in 1776.” – is a perfect example of what is often called “Future in the past” (just Google it).

    Imagine a historian describing events before the declaration, much like this from Wikipedia, which itself includes “would” as future in the past – “Adams persuaded the committee to select Thomas Jefferson to compose the original draft of the document, which congress would edit to produce the final version.”

    Future in the past with “would” or “was going to” is used to describe events that are still in the future relative to the main events being described; “would” is simply being used as the past of “will” here. It has nothing to do with the subjunctive.

    But I agree with you and Cathy about “are” – to me it simply sounds better.

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