Friday, May 14, 2010

Why Worry about Parallelism?

I got this idea because someone landed at my blog yesterday having begged Google to explain, "What is parallelism?" And while I don't have an existing article that would really work for that person, I was immediately inspired.

How many of you have seen this on an exercise machine?

Stop exercising if you feel pain, faint or short of breath.

This drives me crazy, and it's the perfect example of how parallelism can mess you up. In all likelihood you've seen it so many times that it seems normal, so let me explain. The sentence has a recommended behavior and then a list of possible conditions, as follows:

Recommended behavior: stop exercising if you...

1. feel pain. This is a verb phrase. A verb, feel, followed by a noun, pain. No problem.
2. faint. Problem!

Even though the people who wrote the sentence were probably thinking of the expression "feel faint," it isn't actually parallel. The parallelism we're looking for is between parts of speech in the list. Essentially, in order for this item to parallel the first appropriately, it either has to be a verb or a noun. It's definitely not a noun - it's an adjective. So the first thing that happens when I read this with my finicky mind is that I interpret it as a verb!

Cue bizarre image of exercising person falling off of elliptical trainer, murmuring, "Gee, maybe I should stop exercising..." and landing on the floor out cold.

3. short of breath.

This one is also an adjective. So it might work as a parallel to #2, but not for #1. This sentence could be made properly parallel in two possible ways. One would be to make the first condition involve an adjective, and the other would be to change the second and third conditions to either nouns or verbs. Of course, "light-headedness" and "shortness of breath" would make the warning rather longer than ideal for those folks who want to write it on a machine.

Effectively, any time you have a list of any kind, you should try to make each element of the list parallel all the others. My husband occasionally asks me to edit his PowerPoint presentations, and I drive him crazy trying to get all the bullet points to parallel one another. The funny thing about it is, English is flexible. It's actually not that hard to get bullet points to match - it's just a hassle if you have to go back and do it after the fact.

Now, I'm sure the next thing I'm going to hear is that we're not writing PowerPoint presentations, we're writing stories. This is true. But if you consider the first example, you'll realize that lists can be found almost anywhere, and they will be much stronger in their impact if they are parallel. They can happen in one sentence, with a list of options or recommended behaviors, or even sequential behaviors. Here's another example from my friend Janice which I really enjoyed:

She wore a bright dress, shoes, and roses in her arms.

If you don't want her to be wearing roses in her arms - the automatic image suggested by a Noun, Noun, Noun list - then you need to insert a verb here, so the parallelism shifts and compares Verb "wore" to Verb "carried."

There's another issue hiding here in the question of parallelism, and that is the question of why we vary our sentence structure in long descriptive or action sequences. It's a common recommendation, but the real reason why we do it is directly linked to parallelism. A sequence of things phrased in precisely parallel grammatical form, by their very nature, becomes a list. It's what I've often heard described as a story turning into "this happened, and then this happened, and then..." A story and a list are not the same thing. Stories can contain lists, and they can also contain repeating images without becoming problematic, but if you can remember parallelism and its consequences, then the reason why we vary our sentence structure makes a lot more sense. So for today I'll pull out the following observations (in a list!):

1. Items in a list should be parallel in grammatical structure.

2. Items in sequence which are parallel in grammatical structure will feel like a list.

Now I hope that fellow who asked about parallelism considers coming back...


  1. Hi Cutie,

    I have a question. What about Jacobson's kind of parallelism? Do you think you could explain that kind for people who like to sneak in an image or color (yellow) throughout a scene of a story (as in "yellow smoke" or "yellow lamplight") wherever a particular cowardly character appears? Hmmmm.

  2. Jose,
    Thanks for your question. Let me see if I can come up with a full entry on this, as I think it's very interesting and rather involved.