A Short Quiz About Parallel Construction

By Mark Nichol

What’s wrong with these sentences? They each have syntax that creates an obstacle to clear understanding of the relationships of words or phrases to others. Revise them, and then scroll down to see my annotated solutions.

1. “People do not go outside their homes after dark, saying they fear muggers and police looking for bribes.”

2. “Marc Antony was not to be depicted as a monster, but as a love-struck fool.”

3. “People no longer seem to care about owning movies, are decreasingly interested in going to the movie theater, and studios seem to be betting on the fact that the format, not the actual movie, is the selling point.”

4. “The company apparently wastes very little money on lobbying and political contributions—nor, obviously, on a public relations department.”

5. “He founded and ran the trade journal from 1987 to 1991.”

Answers

1. “People do not go outside their homes after dark, saying they fear muggers — and police looking for bribes.”

Explanation: The original sentence construction implies that residents fear being shaken down for bribes by muggers and police. A confusing sentence structure is sometimes clarified by reversing the order of the listed items, but “they fear police looking for bribes and muggers” only replicates the problem; now, the concern is identified as police on the lookout for both extortion opportunities and hoodlums. However, giving the police objectives equal weight muddles the sentence’s meaning. Introducing parallelism inspired by the previous phrase — “they fear both muggers and police looking for bribes” — is better but still somewhat awkward.

A superior solution is to use the correlative conjunction “not only” and its companion phrase “but also,” which not only provides logical syntax but also strengthens the sentence’s impact by introducing the mundane followed by the unexpected: “People do not go outside their homes after dark, saying they fear not only muggers but also police looking for bribes.” However, the original solution offered above does so most simply.

2. “Marc Antony was to be depicted not as a monster but as a love-struck fool.”

Explanation: This syntax resembles the correct form of the “not only . . . but also” construction alluded to above. However, the phrase “was not to be depicted as a monster” works only if it is juxtaposed with an independent clause: “Marc Antony was not to be depicted as a monster; the intent was to portray him as a love-struck fool.”

Otherwise, the solution is to poise not directly after the verb (depicted), rather than before it, so that the alternatives are represented in parallel, one preceded by “not as” and the other following as. (The as before “a monster,” sundered from not, does not logically convey the opposing idea of the as before “a love-struck fool.”)

3. “People no longer seem to care about owning movies and are decreasingly interested in going to the movie theater, and studios seem to be betting on the fact that the format, not the actual movie, is the selling point.”

Explanation: This sentence expresses three ideas: movie ownership, interest in viewing movies in theaters, and studio perception that format is more important than product. But structurally, it implies that all three ideas will pertain to what consumers want. The presence of the third, studio-centric idea, however, means that the subject “people” pertains only to the first two ideas, which need to be linked with a conjunction, not a comma. (The studio idea is expressed in an independent clause.) Therefore, this is not an “a, b, and c” sentence, but an “a and b, and c” sentence.

4. “The company apparently wastes very little money on lobbying and political contributions. (It also, obviously, spends nothing on a PR department.)”

Explanation: Nor is associated only with negative expressions: “Neither you nor I is responsible”; “I didn’t get to see the movie, nor did I want to.” This sentence, though it refers to a company policy of minimalization of funding for certain activities, does not include a negative expression, so nor is incorrect.

For it to be appropriate, the entire sentence would need to be cast in a negative sense, as in “The company apparently doesn’t spend very much money on lobbying and political contributions—nor, obviously, on a public relations department.” But perhaps the clearest revision is one that divides into separate sentences the comment about contributions from the one about public relations.

5. “He founded the trade journal in 1987 and ran it from its launch to 1991.”

Explanation: The sentence structure implies that the consultant founded the trade journal during the given span of years as well as running it during that time, but founding occurs at a point, not along a time continuum, so the two actions — founding and running — need to be separated into distinct syntactical elements.

But if you are editing this sentence, rather than writing it, and don’t know the facts firsthand, you need to confirm the founding date; the founder didn’t necessarily run the journal from the beginning. (They might have taken the operation over from someone else who was originally in charge.)

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12 Responses to “A Short Quiz About Parallel Construction”

  • thebluebird11

    Wow, I was knee-high in muck and thrashing around trying to get out of that 3rd sentence (about the movies). What a mess! Thanks for cleaning it up LOL.

  • Carole Raschella

    This was a toughie. Very enlightening. One question about the very last sentence. Why is it “They might have,” rather than “He might have”? Isn’t it referring to the founder?

  • Mark Nichol

    Carole:

    I used they as a singular pronoun.

  • Adam Murdough

    It seems to me that there’s more than one problem with the first sentence. As written, the sentence does not imply merely that people are not going out at night; it implies that they’re not discussing their fears of muggers and corrupt police officers while doing so. How about: “People do not go outside their homes after dark. They say they fear muggers — and police looking for bribes.” Better? Or am I overmedicating here?

    Also, why use a singular “they” in place of “the founder” instead of “he/she”? The latter choice shows due respect to both gender AND number!

  • Desiree

    Mark, I refer to the 2nd sentence. If I say

    “Marc Antony was to be depicted not as a monster; the intent was to portray him as a love-struck fool.”

    rather than

    “Marc Antony was not to be depicted as a monster; the intent was to portray him as a love-struck fool.”

    I’d like to know why it’s wrong. Thank you.

  • Mark Nichol

    Adam:

    In the context of the journalistic article from which this sentence is taken, I give allowances for some informality as far as how to express the attribution, but your point is well taken.

    Re: the singular they, see my post on the topic, which I linked to in my response to Carole. They may seem awkward in such usage, but I think it’s less awkward than repeating the noun or using “he or she.” (In the original article from which the sample sentence is taken, the founder’s gender is identified, but in this discussion, it’s not.)

  • Mark Nichol

    Desiree:

    The problem with the sentence “Marc Antony was to be depicted not as a monster; the intent was to portray him as a love-struck fool” is that the first clause is incomplete: the opposite of “not as a monster” must be stated before completion of the rest of the sentence, which then becomes redundant.

    In the sentence with the phrasing “was not to be depicted as a monster,” the statement is complete, and the counterpoint is provided in the following clause.

    The relative placement of not, therefore, has a significant bearing on the proper sentence structure.

  • Stephen R. Diamond

    “Nor is associated only with negative expressions.”

    The Random House Dictionary gives as its third sense of “nor,” “(used after an affirmative clause, or as a continuative, in the sense of _and not_): _They are happy, nor need we worry._”

    Is this a different issue than the one you illustrated in #4, or do you disagree with RHD?

  • Precise Edit

    The em dash in your “fix” for #1 seems to imply fear of police is greater than fear of muggers. The em dash creates a long pause and adds emphasis to whatever follows it, in this case police looking for bribes.

    Still, you’re right that muggers and police need to be separated (in the context of this sample, not in real life).

    I offer this solution for separating muggers and police looking for bribes:
    “People do not go outside their homes after dark, saying they fear muggers, as well as police looking for bribes.”

    Another possibility is this:
    “People do not go outside their homes after dark, saying they fear both police looking for bribes and muggers.”

    Do these revisions address your concern?

  • Mark Nichol

    Stephen:

    I should have qualified that statement, though the usage you cite is rare.

  • Mark Nichol

    Precise:

    I find the em dash effective, as I mentioned, in setting off the unusual (residents’ fear of shakedowns by police) from the expected (residents’ fear of muggers), but your first suggestion also works well. In the second option, however, despite the insertion of both, I still think that the phrase “police looking for bribes and muggers” is ambiguous: It appears that bribes and muggers, not police and muggers, are parallel.

  • galvanized sheets

    1. “People do not go outside their homes after dark, saying they fear muggers — and police looking for bribes.”

    absolutely agreed with above

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