Parallelism Prevents Bumpy Communication

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Parallelism is one rule you learned from your English teacher that is appropriate for all sorts of writing. Parallelism makes your thoughts easier to understand, with limited danger of making it more stilted or overly formal. For example, “apples are sweet, but lemons are sour,” which is parallel, is less bumpy than “apples are sweet, but sour is the word for lemons,” which isn’t parallel. Bumpy sentences distract your readers from anything you were trying to say.

Think of parallelism as balance. I don’t think an appreciation for balance is something that has to be taught. The human mind naturally wants to make sentences parallel and orderly. So if a sentence is cock-eyed and skewed, the neurons in your brain will automatically try to unskew it, for better or worse.

Here’s a sentence that it isn’t parallel:

I ate whole wheat bread, spread with mustard, and toasted cheese.

Here’s how I think your neurons naturally try to make sense of that sentence, with somewhat humorous consequences:

  • I ate whole wheat bread
  • I spread with mustard
  • I toasted cheese

That changes the meaning. For example, the truth is that my wife did all the sandwich preparations for me. Some hints in the sentence might tell your neurons the sentence is probably about sandwich ingredients rather than sandwich making, and you won’t stay confused for long. But it requires a little thought to get to that point, and your neurons resent being made to think when it’s not necessary.

Here is a parallel version of the same sentence:

The sandwich was made from whole wheat bread, spread with mustard, and loaded with toasted cheese.

Now your neurons can rest easy because the sentence structure is regular and predictable. Each ingredient has its own parallel statement that describes its relationship with the sandwich.

  • made from whole wheat bread
  • spread with mustard
  • loaded with toasted cheese

When you write in a parallel form, with subjects, verbs and objects that correspond to each other, you’re laying a smooth pathway for your readers and then following it. You’re saying, “This is true in the same way that is true.” “Not only this is true, but that is also true.” “This, that, and the other are true.” Then your readers can focus on what you’re saying, rather than be distracted by how you say it.

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2 thoughts on “Parallelism Prevents Bumpy Communication”

  1. I agree with Daniel.

    The sad thing is that it will certainly make editing harder (for me). I guess that’s better than leaving my work in a perpendicular state ;-).

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