A Quiz About Parallel Structure

By Mark Nichol

Many writers are thwarted by unsuccessful efforts to express equivalent ideas in phrases that clearly identify the hierarchy and relationships of those ideas. Here are five sentences in which syntactical structure fails to communicate these concepts. Try your hand at resolving the confusion, and then compare your results to my solutions at the bottom of the page:

1. “Learn to use this art form not only for performance but also to collaborate, exercise, and respect the differences of others.”

2. “Children enrolled in high-quality preschool programs are more likely to graduate from high school, hold down jobs, and less likely to be on welfare or end up in jail.”

3. “She will be returned to the same, or a substantially similar, position to the one held prior to the leave of absence, as required by law.”

4. “They pulled him from his vehicle, beat him, robbed him of his money and equipment.”

5. “Dedication, hard work, flexibility, a sense of humor, and the interest and ability to learn and improve professionally are some of the positive qualities the company seeks in all employees.”

Answers

1. This sentence isn’t strictly incorrect, but it would be clearer if it didn’t lead the reader to infer that the additional benefits of the art form are that participants can collaborate the differences of others, exercise the differences of others, and respect the differences of others. That implication is eliminated if the preposition to is inserted before the second and third items in the list: “Learn to use this art form not only for performance but also to collaborate, to exercise, and to respect the differences of others.”

2. This sentence has contrasting “more likely” and “less likely” phrases, but includes two of one and one of the other, and the second “more likely phrase” is confusingly cordoned off by commas, leaving it bereft of context. To make the sentence correct, the brace of commas must be omitted and a conjunction added: “Children enrolled in high-quality preschool programs are more likely to graduate from high school and hold down jobs and are less likely to end up on welfare or in jail.”

3. This type of error is distressingly frequent, considering that it seems obvious that if the parenthetical phrase is removed, the sentence is awkward, therefore the original sentence is awkward. One of several possible fixes is to get the trailing phrase out of the way immediately by moving it to the head of the sentence, then presenting the fully expressed basic statement followed by the alternative: “As required by law, she will be returned to the same position held prior to the leave of absence, or a substantially similar one.”

4. Here’s another common error — the omission of a conjunction before a concluding compound list item. As written, the sentence implies that there were four stages to the crime: 1) They pulled him from his vehicle, 2) they beat him, 3) they robbed him, and 4) equipment. Huh? That’s wrong. Only three things occurred; items 3) and 4) are one step. Because that one step is the final list item, it should be preceded by a conjunction: “They pulled him from his vehicle, beat him, and robbed him of his money and equipment.”

5. Interest and ability take different prepositions, so they need to be separated into parallel phrases where each word is supported by its own preposition: “Dedication, hard work, flexibility, a sense of humor, and the interest in learning and improving professionally and the ability to do so are some of the positive qualities the company seeks in all employees.”

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4 Responses to “A Quiz About Parallel Structure”

  • Toby

    The conjunctive adverb “then” seems more appropriate for sentence four because it’s more logical to see the stages performed one after another.

    “They pulled him from his vehicle, beat him, then robbed him of his money and equipment.”

    However, it’s also possible that the perpetrators acted simultaneously.

    It’s similar to news headlines that use the incorrect conjunction.

    Example: “Man raped and killed neighbor”.

    Did he really do these things at the same time?

  • Mark Nichol

    Toby:

    That works, but I would also replace the first comma with a conjunction: “They pulled him from his vehicle and beat him, then robbed him of his money and equipment.”

  • Sarah

    The revised version of sentence 5 feels really awkward. I had to read it three times to understand how that last big phrase (regarding interest AND ability) fits in. I think it would sound better to make that last phrase much simpler, which means eliminating some of the words. I know it isn’t exactly the same, but I think this keeps the spirit of the original and feels much smoother and more parallel:

    “Dedication, hard work, flexibility, a sense of humor, and a commitment to professional improvement are some of the positive qualities the company seeks in all employees.”

  • venqax

    I saw an interview on TV with a college football coach who described his program as “emotional, training, and physically”. An adjective, a noun and an adverb. 2 disagreements in 3 words. Probably a competitive record. Maybe he’s coaching the wrong sport. Is “speakingfully” a sport? Talkable Englishly, maybe?

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