5 Ways to Keep Parallel Lists on Track

By Mark Nichol

For many types of diagnostic posts on this site, in which I present a list of sentences with the same kind of error and describe the problem, I try to find real-world examples I’ve come across in editing projects or in casual reading, though sometimes I have to resort to constructing examples. One type of writing error I will never run out of live specimens for, however, is a lack of parallel structure in a run-in list. Here are just some of the many candidate sentences I’ve found:

1. “The game received prominent coverage in the video game media, high overall scores from professional reviewers, and has sold more than two million copies.”

All items in a series must be accompanied by their own verbs or must share one — there’s no middle ground: “The game received prominent coverage in the video game media, earned high overall scores from professional reviewers, and has sold more than two million copies.” (Or “The game received prominent coverage in the video game media and high overall scores from professional reviewers and has sold more than two million copies.”)

2. “It is fun, safe, convenient, saves energy, and a great place to meet and make new friends.”

In this variation of the error illustrated in the first example, a list item equipped with its own verb is inserted among other items sharing a verb at the head of the sentence. Convert the errant item to a consistent form: “It is fun, safe, convenient, energy efficient, and a great place to meet and make new friends.” (Alternatively, tack the item on to the end of the sentence: “It is fun, safe, convenient, and a great place to meet and make new friends — and it saves energy, too!”)

3. “There is an outdoor patio with picnic tables and barbecue, a fire pit with Adirondack chairs, walking trails, and beach access.”

This construction implies that the fire pit has Adirondack chairs, walking trails, and beach access. To avoid implying a nonexistent association, relegate a complex list item among a string of simple items to the end of the sentence: “There is an outdoor patio with picnic tables and a barbecue, walking trails, and beach access, and a fire pit with Adirondack chairs.” (Also, I don’t understand why writers are so niggardly with the article a/an in run-in lists; I inserted one before barbecue.)

4. “Many animals such as deer, raccoon, coyote, fox, an occasional bobcat, mountain lion, and many bird species call this area home.”

This sentence’s first item is an animal name that is identical in singular and plural form, and the wording of the head of the sentence suggests that all references to animals to follow will be in plural form. They’re not, and then “an occasional bobcat” distracts the reader, followed by a disorienting plural. Make the animal names consistently plural (with the necessary exception set aside as a parenthetical): “Many animals such as deer, raccoons, coyotes, foxes, mountain lions (and an occasional bobcat), and many bird species call this area home.”

5. “Miles of trails provide access through rugged chaparral, woodlands, fields, streams, a lake, and provide spectacular views.”

Everything’s fine until you hit the water, and suddenly “miles of trails” is no longer relevant, except that it is for the final phrase. Retrofit the sentence to support its ideas: “Miles of trails provide spectacular views, and provide access through woodlands, fields, and rugged chaparral to streams and a lake.” (My assumption is that rugged refers only to chaparral, so move that phrase to the end of the initial list so it is not incorrectly applied to woodlands and fields as well.)

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4 Responses to “5 Ways to Keep Parallel Lists on Track”

  • Steve Campbell

    Thanks for the useful posting, Mark.

    It has always seemed a little odd to me that we call this kind of sentence structure “parallel.” Language is linear, sequential. So it seems we ought to call this structure “serial.” “Parallelism” is when four people are all talking at once.

  • Dee

    I could be wrong, because I’m learning a lot from you, but in example 3, it seems like the plural “walking trails” doesn’t fit with the other singular items that come after “There is …” Wouldn’t it work better to say “There is an outdoor patio with picnic tables and a barbecue, beach access, a fire pit with Adirondack chairs, and there are walking trails as well.” (Or something similar.) Just sayin’…

  • thebluebird11

    @Steve: Four people talking at once is rude and noisy.

    It seems to me that the word “parallel” can be used differently in different contexts. When applied to the theme of lists, it is an accurate expression that means that all the items on the list are, well, parallel…in alignment with each other, heading in the same direction the same way, coordinated (like a tennis outfit)…you get the picture.

    I too am OC about keeping lists parallel, but often I read a poorly structured list, gag over the jarring disjointedness, pretty much figure out what the person was trying to say, and try to get on quickly. Non-parallel lists sort of send a shiver up my spine and make me cringe.
    I guess we can apply the Santa philosphy: Make your list, and check it twice!

  • Mark Nichol

    Dee:

    You’re right. I looked at that sentence later and realized this revision works better: “There is an outdoor patio with picnic tables and a barbecue, plus walking trails, beach access, and a fire pit with Adirondack chairs.”

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