7 Solutions for Sentences with Problematic Parallels

By Mark Nichol

1. “The street is lined with boisterous sports bars, nail salons, and clothing boutiques.”

Some neighborhood, where nail salons and clothing boutiques can be described as boisterous. Do I misunderstand? I do, because when only the first of several items in a list is given an adjective, it is easily confused as applying to each item in the list. Either omit the adjective, or play fair and supply each item with its own: “The street is lined with elegant nail salons, trendy clothing boutiques, and boisterous sports bars.”

2. “The process would be confidential, voluntary, and the information would remain the property of the teachers.”

The same rule applies for verbs. Either use a verb to apply to all items in a list, or attach a verb to each item. Or, in this case, combine the first two items into a combined item: “The process would be confidential and voluntary, and the information would remain the property of the teachers.”

3. “The so-called beer summit was photographed, discussed, and dissected on blogs, newscasts, and in barbershops and bars nationwide.”

Let’s not forget prepositions. In a list, one preposition carries each item, or each has its own; there’s no middle ground: “The so-called beer summit was photographed, discussed, and dissected on blogs, during newscasts, and in barbershops and bars nationwide.” (For variety, try to use a different preposition for each item.)

4. “It would be safer to keep our bushy tree trimmed so that no would-be burglar could hide under it and buy a locked mailbox to help prevent identity theft.”

Infinitives want equal standing, too. The original sentence implies that the would-be burglar might buy a locked mailbox after hiding under the bushy tree. The addition of a parallel infinitive after the conjunction linking the two parts of a sentence arrests this infelicity: “It would be safer to keep our bushy tree trimmed so that no would-be burglar could hide under it and to buy a locked mailbox to help prevent identity theft.”

5. “Legislation is often to blame, not because legislators are bad people but often they act on partial or misleading information.”

Two reasons, one invalid and the other valid, are supplied in this sentence. Set them up separately, each with its own because: “Legislation is often to blame, not because legislators are bad people but because they often act on partial or misleading information.”

6. “The location features stifling heat, bacteria, polluted seas, lice, and bad cuisine.”

If you’re going to modify one or most nouns in a list, go all the way and precede each with a pertinent adjective: “The location features stifling heat, gut-wrenching bacteria, polluted seas, itchy lice, and bad cuisine.”

7. “The afflictions are believed to include autism and learning and hyperactivity disorders.”

Is learning a stand-alone item, or does disorders apply to it as well as to hyperactivity? You don’t know until you get to the end of the sentence, when it’s too late. The inclusion of a comma after autism prevents a stumble, and inserting “as well as” helps link the two remaining list items: “The afflictions are believed to include autism, as well as learning and hyperactivity disorders.”

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4 Responses to “7 Solutions for Sentences with Problematic Parallels”

  • Kathryn

    I disagree with the advice that in lists of nouns, if one has an adjective they must each have an adjective. I think #1 would be perfectly fine with only the one adjective, if the sports bars move to the end: “nail salons, clothing boutiques, and boisterous sports bars.” Or. . .”with boisterous sports bars as well as nail salons and clothing boutiques.” It would all depend on what you were trying to do with the sentence. . . [and, in truth, both “nail” and “clothing” are acting as modifiers in that sentence; but then, so is “sports,” of course.]

    The point is more clearly made using #6: lice and bacteria are presumed to be bad things, so they don’t need modifiers to tell us how bad they are; cuisine, heat and seas could be either good or bad, so they do need modifiers: The location features stifling heat, polluted seas, bad cuisine, bacteria, and lice. There’s little danger that “bad” will be read to apply to bacteria and lice as well as the food, because the series has already established that there is no single modifier applicable to all listed items, but if one wanted to be hypercareful one could put bacteria and lice at the beginning.

    And, yes, I know I used the Oxford comma.

  • Stephen R. Diamond

    In #7, the comma resolves the ambiguity, and the phrase (“as well as”) links the items. The phrase alone, however, achieves both objectives, and the unnecessary comma arbitrarily splits an object (of the infinitive ‘to include’). The grammatically opportunistic comma unhelpfully replaces ambiguity with disconnectness.

    Also, I agree completely with Kathryn’s comment.

  • Mark Nichol

    Kathryn:

    I agree, if the context calls for emphasis. But in your first example, I don’t know why the sports bars alone need to be called out with a modifier. In your second example, the syntax appears to point up the exuberant character of the sports bars in juxtaposition with its more sedate upscale neighbors, in which case boisterous is perhaps extraneous.

    As for the sentence about the vacation spot from hell, if bacteria and lice are to remain unadorned, I’d rather set them off from the modified elements: “The location features stifling heat, polluted seas, and bad cuisine — oh, and did I mention the bacteria and the lice?”

  • Kathryn

    Mark–We won’t argue about #1; I understand your point, but I think the discussion is really bumping against the border between style guides and personal creative style. I doubt I’d actually write ANY of the examples we have posited for #1, but the only one I think is actually wrong was the original example.

    I’d think the discussion about #6 is also at the border–but having said it, would concede that your final example is more rhetorically effective than any that preceded it.

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