5 Sentences with Problematic Parallelism in Lists

By Mark Nichol

It’s too bad you can’t eat grammatical errors or use them to fill your gas tank, because they’re a cheap, endlessly renewable resource. Here’s a five-course meal of sentences with troublesome structure, starting with dessert.

1. “The writer will sit, eat, and interview the subject.”
It seems more logical for the writer to interview the subject after being seated but before eating him or her, but whatever. If the intended meaning of the statement is that the writer will dine with the subject rather than cannibalistically consume him or her, however, the sentence should be revised as follows: “The writer will sit and eat with, and interview, the subject.” Better yet, for a smoother flow to the sentence, introduce a pronoun: “The writer will sit and eat with the subject and interview him [or her].”

2. “The committee consists of the executive directors of the Bay Area Toll Authority, California Transportation Commission, and California Department of Transportation.”
Normally, items in a list can share an article (“the birds, bees, flowers, and trees”), or each can have its own (“the birds, the bees, the flowers, and the trees”), but when the list items are proper nouns, it’s best to assign an article to each one so that it doesn’t appear that the entities after the first one are erroneously referred to without an article: “The committee consists of the executive directors of the Bay Area Toll Authority, the California Transportation Commission, and the California Department of Transportation.”

3. “His contribution to the interior design of the home is his impressive antique musical instruments and modern art collection.”
The statement implies that the collection consists of antique musical instruments and modern art, but technically, the reference should be to two distinct collections, described in the plural form and with each description preceded by its own plural pronoun: “His contributions to the interior design of the home are his impressive antique musical instruments and his modern art collection.”

Alternatively, the sentence could be revised as follows, with the collections referred to as a single contribution or a pair of contributions: “His contribution(s) to the interior design of the home is (or are) his impressive collections of antique musical instruments and modern art.”

4. “The organization promotes sustainable landscaping practices, green building-construction methods and products, and minimizing pesticide use in the home.”
The inconsistency of syntax here is that the first two items are modified with adjectives, while the third is described as an action. Change the verb in the final item to an adjective: “The organization promotes sustainable landscaping practices, green building-construction methods and products, and minimal pesticide use in the home.”

Alternatively, introduce verbs into each of the other items: “The organization promotes employing sustainable landscaping practices, utilizing green building-construction methods and products, and minimizing pesticide use in the home.”

5. “Here come the summer movies—the usual formulaic action flicks, dumb comedies, and sequels.”
This sentence is not wrong, but the rhythm is off because the first two items are preceded by adjectives but the final element is a bare noun. Introduce an adjective before that item for parallel structure: “Here come the summer movies—the usual formulaic action flicks, dumb comedies, and weak sequels.”

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5 Responses to “5 Sentences with Problematic Parallelism in Lists”

  • Jan Arzooman

    Mark, I’ve paraphrased your first line and tweeted it. Good post. When editing I find problematic parallelism one of my biggest headaches. The sentence seems off and I have to analyze why.

    It’s also one of the things I fear no one worries about but copyeditors or proofreaders — when fixed, it definitely sounds better, but when left alone, many will not notice.

  • Curtis

    Mark, your opening sentence is hilarious! Thanks!

  • Ron

    Mark, as Curtis I too loved the first example. In the position of seeking gainful employment it often feels that the sentence structure is correct. It seems too often that the interviewer is practicing cannibalism albeit figuratively. Thanks for keeping our grammar straight.

  • Pip

    I disagree that #4 is incorrect. Your solution might be more elegant as a matter of preference, but the original statement does not offend any rule if grammar.

  • Dale A. Wood

    A recent TV commercial in the U.S., endlessly repeated, and grating on the ears and mind every time:

    “Would you rather be going bald or a full head of hair?”

    Naturally, good parallel constuction demands the following:
    “Would you rather be going bald or having a full head of hair?”

    The two items that need to be in parallel are the two verbs “going” and “having”. How much did that amount of effort cost? 50 cents?
    ————————————————————–
    To Pip: I do not see any reason for defending anyone who writes a sentence that is even questionable in its structure. When it takes just a minor bit of effort to improve it, why not expend that effort?
    One of my teachers in junior high school stated in a message on his bulletin board:
    “Reach for the stars.
    You might not get there,
    but you will go a long way.”

    This statement has inspired me ever since.

    D.A.W.

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