3 Cases of Nonequivalent List Items

By Mark Nichol

When a list of items in a sentence is not a simple matter of a, b, and c, writers can easily err in erroneously constructing the sentence, mangling the syntax in the mistaken belief that nonequivalent items are equivalent. Each of the sentences below presents a distinct problem with parallel structuring of lists, and the discussions and revisions that follow the examples explain and resolve the problems.

1. If you have a kitten, pregnant, or nursing cat, we recommend that you feed it kitten food.

This sentence reads as if it refers to three types of cats: kitten cats, pregnant cats, and nursing cats. However, “kitten cat” is redundant, so kitten must appear syntactically distinct from the two other types of cats mentioned. The references to those types may be combined into a compound phrase, but it must follow a conjunction and a shared article, and the punctuation between them must be omitted to allow them to share the article: “If you have a kitten or a pregnant or nursing cat, we recommend that you feed it kitten food.”

2. Companies need to embrace innovation, cultural change, and embark on the digital-transformation process to become more nimble and keep up with the changing business environment.

This sentence attempts to refer to three actions: embrace of innovation, embrace of cultural change, and embarkation on the digital-transformation process. But “cultural change” is not provided with its own verb, and the comma that precedes the phrase prevents it from sharing one with innovation. In order to share, the comma must be replaced by a conjunction. In addition, because such a revision results in two, not three, list items (the combination “embrace innovation and cultural change” and the phrase about embarkation), no internal punctuation is required: “Companies need to embrace innovation and cultural change and embark on the digital transformation process to become more nimble and keep up with the changing business environment.”

3. Factors influencing technology selection and implementation include the entity’s goals, marketplace needs, competitive requirements, and the associated costs and benefits.

Because “associated costs and benefits” is only tangentially related to the entity, it should not be part of the list describing various aspects of the entity; the sentence must be revised so that “competitive requirements” is clearly the final item in the list: “Factors influencing technology selection and implementation include the entity’s goals, marketplace needs, and competitive requirements and the associated costs and benefits.”

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2 Responses to “3 Cases of Nonequivalent List Items”

  • venqax

    The whole list is kind of odd. Why would you need to recommend feeding a kitten kitten food? Reminds me of those drug commercials that say, “Do not take Dammitol if you are allergic to Dammitol” or whatever drug. OK. Is that medical advice I would be expected to pay for?

  • Caitlin

    1. Could also read as if it refers to the following three things: a kitten, a pregnant, and a nursing cat.

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