5 Parallelism Problems in In-Line Lists
Constructing an in-line list — a series of items in a sentence — seems like a straightforward task, but writers frequently err in their attempts to produce parallel structure. The following sentences illustrate some of the pitfalls of parallel construction and how to fix them.
1. “You can pay using your bank account, debit, or credit cards.”
This list refers to two types of financial resources: a bank account and a card (two types of which are mentioned). The sentence structure mistakenly suggests that the list consists of three elements, rather than two (“your bank account” and “a debit or credit card”), one of which is a compound item — one consisting of two or more nouns or noun phrases. The following revision reflects the correct organization: “You can pay using your bank account or a debit or credit card.”
2. “Her writing was accurate, complete, and demonstrated attention to detail.”
Of the three items in this list, two are accompanied by verbs, but the writer has erroneously assumed that complete can share the verb that precedes accurate. It can do so, but only if accurate and complete are linked with a conjunction rather than separated by a comma: “Her writing was accurate and complete and demonstrated attention to detail.”
3. “It’s free, secure, and takes no time at all.”
This sentence suffers from the same slight but clumsy error as the one in the preceding example. It can be solved in the same way (“It’s free and secure, and it takes no time at all”) — a comma is required before the conjunction in this case because the pronoun’s presence makes the second clause an independent one. Alternatively, each item in the list can be assigned its own pronoun: “It’s free, it’s secure, and it takes no time at all.”
4. “The pension system divested in firms doing business with apartheid-era South Africa, avoided oil and energy investments in Iran, and it dropped tobacco companies from its portfolio in 2008.”
Here, too, the problem is of inconsistency of structure, but because the subject is a noun and the sentence is more complex, the simple error might not be apparent. Basically, each segment of the sentence needs a subject noun or a pronoun as if it were a distinct sentence, or, better, all segments must share the subject: “The pension system divested in firms doing business with apartheid-era South Africa, avoided oil and energy investments in Iran, and dropped tobacco companies from its portfolio in 2008.” (Alternatively, the comma following Africa could be replaced by and, but the lengthy sentence is better served by a rest-stop comma rather than another move-along conjunction.)
5. “There’s the Coke bottle and the old glove and sailboats gliding along the bay.”
This sentence (referring to iconic features at a baseball stadium) almost works in its relaxed state, unhindered by internal punctuation. But the lack of a comma suggests that all three things glide along the bay. A comma after “old glove” will catch that noun phrase and the preceding one, reserving the gliding action for the sailboats alone: “There’s the Coke bottle and the old glove, and sailboats gliding along the bay.”
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