5 Parallelism Problems in In-Line Lists

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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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14 thoughts on “5 Parallelism Problems in In-Line Lists”

  1. As I have mentioned before, millions and millions of people have no idea what parallel construction is in English, and I do not know what we can do about that. They simply are not taught about it in school, and I do not think that many schoolteachers know about it themselves. This includes English teachers in junior high schools, middle schools, and high schools.
    I am not kidding when I say that parallel constuction has deep roots in logic and mathematics, and so many people do not know very much about these subjects, either. Perhaps some very basic explanation of parallel construction would be helpful in this column, but diagrams would be a necessity.

    I have taught (or tried to teach) mathematics to a lot of college freshmen, and it is amazing how unprepared many of them are and how little that they know. Most of those students thought that “word problems” in mathematics were some kind of special torture that I made up for them. In contrast, I expected them to be able to read the sentences and reason out what kind of math that they needed to use. Much to my surprise, many of my students found this to be baffling.
    Especially in probability and statistics, the ability to work out word problems is fundamental, but it is very important in other areas, too.

  2. I do not like your fixed version of example #5 because the rewritten sentence appears to be a poorly-constructed compound sentence. “There’s the Coke bottle and the old glove, and sailboats [are] gliding along the bay.” Or maybe it should be: “There’s the Coke bottle and the old glove, and [one can see] sailboats gliding along the bay.”

    Or perhaps this particular breezy, relaxed sentence just doesn’t work.

  3. Unlike Danny, I’m fine with the fixed version of #5. However, my question is, maybe this was some kind of parade of floats, and there was a huge float shaped like a Coke bottle, another shaped like a huge glove, with those and others intermingled with sailboats…in which case, all of these things could actually have been gliding by. I would need further context (preceding sentence or something) to be sure. However, if the writer is referring to an actual Coke bottle and a baseball glove, I assume that those objects were not floating around in the bay, or at least I hope they weren’t.

  4. D.A.W.: In my previous career as a mathematics educator I liked to point out that life is a word problem. I also opined that ALL mathematics problems are word problems. Anything else is merely an exercise. And since I’m feeling like a blowhard this morning, I’ll venture to say that half of what ails math and science education in the U.S. is our society’s acceptance of the attitude that “math and science are hard and arcane and no one can expect average people to understand them.”

    But I’m getting off topic, aren’t I?

  5. Danny – Life is a word problem! I love that! It’s all based on estimating probability (risk, likelihood, etc.) and recognizing proportion. The illiteracy in math and science coming out of our school system today is appalling.

  6. Sorry…one more thing. As an aside (off-topic), regarding #4, I believe the correct phrasing is “divested of” (not divested in). I’m not sure if this is a regional phrasing or just incorrect, or if there is a choice. I looked it up just now, albeit from only one source, and it did say that the word divested is usually followed by of. I’m not faulting you (Mark), since you are just the messenger in this case, presumably presenting the example as it was. But I mention it for others who might read it. Please correct me if I’m wrong.

  7. Bluebird, regarding #4:
    I think you’re right. At first I thought maybe it was a case of incorrect word usage (thinking they’d meant “invested in”), but then I looked at the other verbs and saw they’re all about getting rid of certain investments – so I checked my Oxford dictionary and sure enough, one of the meanings of “divest” is “to rid oneself of (a business interest or investment).”

    At any rate, I have never heard of “divest” not being followed by “of.” The phrase “divested in” just really looks/sounds wrong to me.
    Anyone else know of any exceptions to “divest (oneself/a thing) of”, or whether there’s a particular rule about it?

  8. To clarify about item #5, the “Coke bottle” and “old glove” are sculptures; the sailboats are the real thing. I think that, because of the context and the imagery, some relaxation of rules is called for here. The is of There’s is appropriate in reference to the sailboats because the emphasis is on a sailboat-studded bay, rather than a quantity of sailboats. (The absence of context for such examples can complicate things, I know.)

  9. Yes, “divested of” is the correct phrasing for the first part of the fourth example. (Etymological note: The vest in invest and divest shares its meaning with vest, referring to the garment. To invest is to figuratively clothe yourself with something, and to divest is to figuratively disrobe.)

  10. @dragonwielder: I did that double-take as well, and, like you, as I read on, it became clear what the meaning was. But it was confusing.
    @Mark, re: Sculptures: I kind of figured that these items might have been something like that, things that people familiar with the area would know about and might take for granted others knowing about them too, maybe the way a Brooklynite would stand at Grand Army Plaza and say “And there are the horses,” with others not familiar with the area having no idea to what horses he was referring. At any rate, they are probably not gliding around the bay!

  11. @Mark,
    Ok, I have to ask you this question. Do you ever read just for fun? 😉

    Or, when you read, do “think” in parts of speech?

    It’s a sort of a serious question, because I can’t imagine it….

    I am a finish carpenter, and notice the woodwork and the craftsmanship thereof when visiting a home. If it’s an example of very good work, I’ll usually comment on it.

    Anyway, I’m interested to know how you think….

  12. Art:

    Good questions!

    For me, reading is often a busman’s holiday — like just about anyone, I have a hard time enjoying a poorly written (or edited book), but even slight and occasional errors trip me up (and don’t get me started about signage).

    No, I’m not attuned to parts of speech when I think or talk — I may be a grammar guru, but I don’t really concern myself with grammar IRL; even while writing and editing, I’m more holistic. (I’m much more likely to think, “That doesn’t look right” than, for example, “That modifier is misplaced.”)

    However, I’m very self-aware when I speak. I’m often very colloquial in my speech habits, but sometimes, when I build a complex sentence like this one while speaking, I’m very cognizant of syntax so that I’m sure to get back to where I started when I get to the terminal punctuation.

  13. In a purely grammatical world, example #1 is correct as given. However, it is not correct from a real-world view, and as writers we must incorporate the real world in our writing and our grammar.

    Corrected example #1 is does not include all possibilities. There are Credit Cards. There are Debit Cards. There are Cards that function as Debit AND Credit cards.

    “You can pay using your bank account, debit card, or credit card.”

    I’m sure the credit-card companies would prefer the example given above, because it implies that a transaction using a credit card is no different than one that uses a debit card, but that is untrue. There IS a difference and it comes in the form of fees charged to the seller, which are passed to the consumer.

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