Parallel Structure Supports Meaning

By Mark Nichol

A lack of parallel structure in sentence construction can lead to confusion. Make sure that statements are scaffolded correctly to convey the intended meaning, as explained and demonstrated in the discussions to and revisions of the following sentences.

1. The poll found that 24 percent of voters said they would either abstain from voting in the general election rather than vote for Trump or Clinton or vote for a third-party candidate.

The meaning of this sentence is ambiguous. As written, it implies that 24 percent of voters would vote neither for Trump or Clinton nor for a third-party candidate, but it could mean that 24 percent of voters either would abstain from voting or would vote for someone other than Trump or Clinton. If this is the case, the wording should be “The poll found that 24 percent of voters said they either would abstain from voting in the general election rather than vote for Trump or Clinton or would vote for a third-party candidate.”

2. The act requires the removal of any personally identifiable information not relevant to threat identification or protected by privacy laws.

As written, this sentence implies that not applies both to “relevant to threat identification” and to “protected by privacy laws.” However, the removal requirement applies to information that is not relevant or that is protected, so the language should emphasize this distinction: “The act requires the removal of any personally identifiable information that is not relevant to threat identification or that is protected by privacy laws.”

3. You will learn a new method for weight loss without neglecting your work or rearing your children.

The implication of this sentence is that the new weight-loss method will not require one to neglect one’s work and will absolve one of the chore of rearing one’s children. But the meaning is that adopting the method will not affect one’s abilities to work or to raise children, and the wording should reflect that meaning: “You will learn a new method for weight loss without neglecting your work or your parental responsibilities” is one possible revision.

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10 Responses to “Parallel Structure Supports Meaning”

  • Lynn

    In the first example, to be parallel shouldn’t “either” be placed before “would”: “The poll found that 24 percent of voters said they either would abstain from voting in the general election rather than vote for Trump or Clinton or would vote for a third-party candidate”?

  • Dale A. Wood

    So many writers and speakers of English have NO IDEA what parallel construction is or what it does; hence they do not use it. They have never been taught to diagram sentences, or else they did not pay attention and get a grasp on the concept.
    Poor or nonexistent parallel construction is very prevalent in television commercials (where the main message is an aural one); hence the “professionals” in advertising continually mislead the general public (especially children) in how English ought to be used.
    I wonder if the same problem exists is other major languages such as Chinese, French, German, Greek, Hindi, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, Spanish, Swahili, Turkish, and Urdu. In some of these languages, sentence structure is not as important as in English.

  • Dale A. Wood

    I agree with Lynn’s approach to correcting the problematic sentence in the first example. I diagram the sentence on my “mental chalkboard” and I see it clearly. Lynn’s approach also avoids such minor problems as split infinitives and so forth.
    By the way, I still insist that the words “problem” and “issue” are NOT synonymous. The key point is that a problem always has a negative point to it (“the problem of widespread starvation”) but an “issue” always has two or more points of view associated with it (the issue of whether the U.K. should abandon the pound sterling and adopt the euro, or not). People can argue justifiably on either side of this latter – it is debatable.

  • Carol Dedrick

    The correction of the first second may have made it parallel, but the sentence remains a mess. The information “rather than vote for Trump or Clinton … in the general election” applies to both options.

    “Rather than vote for Trump or Clinton in the general election, 24 percent of the polled voters said they would either vote for a third-party candidate or abstain from voting.”

  • venqax

    Lynn, I agree with what you mean. There are still only 2 choices offered: abstain from voting at all, or vote for a 3rd candidate. The “either” emphasizes that dichotomy. The sentence is a bit misleading in that sense because it lists both choices “not” to vote for as if they are separate things. I guess it isn’t necessary, but it does fit.

  • venqax

    Or Arabic, Farsi, Dutch, Hungarian, Russian, or Icelandic. i wonder it they have that problem. Or Polish or Romanian, or Albanian (Gheg) or Albanian (Tosk).

    “– it is debatable.” No it’s not.
    J/k 🙂

  • Simon

    With the first sentence, I believe clarity is introduced by placing “rather than vote for Trump or Clinton” earlier in the sentence as follows:

    The poll found that 24 percent of voters said rather than vote for Trump or Clinton they would either abstain from voting in the general election or vote for a third-party candidate.”

  • Anne-Marie

    Hey, you guys forgot my favorite dead language, Scottish Gaelic. It most definitely has amazingly complex sentence structures as it lacks some basic verbs and other typical words.

  • Mark Nichol

    Those who commented about the phrase “would either” are correct, and the post has been revised. Thanks!

  • Festus Abiatar

    Would it be incorrect if I write it this way? “The poll found that 24 percent of voters said they would either abstain from voting in the general election or vote for a third-party candidate rather than vote for Trump or Clinton.”

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