Parallelism is defined as the balance between two or more similar words, phrases, or clauses. In grammar, it is also called parallel structure or parallel construction. Parallel construction prevents awkwardness in the sentence, promotes clarity of the message, and improves writing style and readability.
Take this sentence as an example: “Nancy likes playing the piano, the trumpet, and play the guitar.” Although technically, its grammar construction is not erroneous, you just know by reading the sentence that there is something wrong with how the words are arranged.
Compare that to this sentence: “Nancy likes the piano, the trumpet, and the guitar.” Both sentences tell us the same thing, that Nancy likes musical instruments. They are also both grammatically correct. However, the second sentence sounds much better than the second.
That is because the latter is a parallel sentence while the first isn’t. Parallelism is used to balance nouns with nouns, prepositional phrases with prepositional phrases, participles with participles, infinitives with infinitives, and clauses with clauses.
It is also used with elements joined by conjunctions, such as “My mother likes cooking and to read” compared to “My mother likes cooking and reading.” Parallelism is used when elements are in lists or in a series. For example:
“This task can be done individually, in pairs, or can be done in groups of four.”
“This task can be done individually, in pairs, or in groups of four.”
In these two sentences, the latter observes parallelism, which is why it sounds better than the first. Parallelism is also used when elements are being compared. It’s used with elements joined by a linking verb, or by linking words.
Writers use parallel structure in the words and phrases in their sentences. This grammatical form can be used with a variety of structures including infinitives, words, clauses, and lists. A parallel structure should be used when you connect clauses with a coordinating conjunction such as for, and, nor, or, but, so, or yet. Some examples of this include:
Correct: Every morning, we make our bed, eat breakfast, and feed the dog.
Incorrect: Every morning, we make our bed, eating breakfast, and feed the dog.
Correct: I will not sing a song, nor will I dance.
Incorrect: I will not be singing, nor dance.
In addition to coordinating conjunctions, parallel structure is also used with correlative conjunctions such as either/or, neither/nor, not only/but also. Some examples of this use include:
Correct: They argued not only about the article but also about the review.
Incorrect: They argued not only about the article, but they argued also about the review.
Correct: Either she likes to see him or she doesn’t like to see him.
Incorrect: Either she likes to see him or doesn’t like seeing him.
A parallel structure should be used within infinitives. Some examples of a parallel structure with infinitives:
Correct: Ashley likes to ski, to swim, and to jump rope.
Incorrect: Ashely likes to ski, to swim, and jump ropes.
Correct: She likes to dance and to sing songs.
Incorrect: She likes dancing and to sing songs.
Be consistent and use parallel structure with words that end in -ing. Some examples of parallel structure of words in -ing:
Correct: Joe likes running, walking, and being active.
Incorrect: Joe likes running, walking and outdoor activities.
Correct: We enjoy relaxing and sitting out in the sun.
Incorrect: We enjoy relaxing and like to sit out in the sun.
Parallel structure should be used when writing clauses. Some examples of clauses using parallel structure are:
Correct: Mary wanted to make sure that she made her presentation creatively, effectively, and persuasively.
Incorrect: Mary wanted to make sure she made her presentation creatively, effectively, and persuaded others.
Correct: Tim was considered to be a good employee because he was always on time, he was very motivated, and he was a good leader.
Incorrect: Tim was considered to be a good employee because he was always on time, he was very motivated and led the team well.
Parallelism is the use of components in a sentence that is grammatically the same, or similar in their construction, sound, meaning, or meter. Parallelism examples are found in literary works as well as in ordinary conversations. This method adds balance and rhythm to sentences, giving ideas a smoother flow and thus persuasiveness, because of the repetition it employs.
For example, “Alice ran into the room, into the garden, and into our hearts.” We see the repetition of a phrase that not only gives the sentence a balance but rhythm and flow as well. This repetition can also occur in similarly structured clauses, such as, “Whenever you need me, wherever you need me, I will be there for you.”
There are also other examples of parallelism:
In literature, parallelism is used in different ways to impress upon the readers certain messages or moral lessons. Parallelism has been an important literary device for cultures of oral storytelling from around the world. Many different poetic traditions have examples of parallelism. Some languages from around the world use parallelism as the primary aesthetic construction for poetry, such as Nahuatl in Mexico, Navajo in the United States, Toda in India, and in parts of Indonesia, Finland, Turkey, and Mongolia.
The term “parallelism” comes from an eighteenth-century scholar of Hebrew poetry, while the Russian literary theorist Roman Jakobson pioneered the study of parallelism in non-religious texts. Parallelism remains a popular technique in poetry, prose, and plays. Let us analyze a few examples of parallelism in literature:
Antithesis is a kind of parallelism in which two opposite ideas are put together in parallel structures. Alexander Pope, in his An Essay on Criticism, uses antithetic parallel structure:
“To err is human; to forgive divine.”
Imperfection is a human trait, and God is most forgiving. Through this antithetical but parallel structures, the poet wants to say that God is forgiving because his creation is erring.
“Good we must love, and must hate ill,
For ill is ill, and good good still;
But there are things indifferent,
Which we may neither hate, nor love,
But one, and then another prove,
As we shall find our fancy bent.”
Contrasting ideas of good and ill, love and hate are placed together in parallel structures to emphasize the fact that we love good because it is always good, and we hate bad because it is always bad.
We see the repetition of parallel structures in the following lines from A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”
By repeating “it was . . .” in the passage, the readers are prompted to focus on the traits of the “age” which they will read about in the succeeding passages.
“What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace is thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?”
Blake uses parallel structures, starting with “what” in each phrase, creating a beautiful rhythm in the above lines.
Parallelism takes form of “Diazeugma,” in which a single subject is connected with multiple verbs. Read the following lines from the speech of Norfolk in William Shakespeare’s Henry VIII, Act 3, Scene 2.
“My lord, we have
Stood here observing him: Some strange commotion
Is in his brain: he bites his lip, and starts;
Stops on a sudden, looks upon the ground,
Then, lays his finger on his temple; straight,
Springs out into fast gait; then, stops again,
Strikes his breast hard; and anon, he casts
His eye against the moon: in most strange postures
We have seen him set himself.”
The use of multiple verbs in the above lines creates a dramatic effect in the speech of Norfolk, which makes his description vivid.
“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal.’
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
“I have a dream today.”
This is the popular speech by Martin Luther King Jr. in which he repeats the phrase “I have a dream” several times. This phrase later became the title of the speech. This is a good example of parallelism.
“I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.”
These two verses from the poem of Elizabeth Barrett Browning have been made parallel by the repetition of “I love thee.”
“My fellow citizens: I stand here today humbled by the task before us, grateful for the trust you have bestowed, mindful of the sacrifices borne by our ancestors.”
In this speech, U.S. President Barack Obama uses structural parallelism in the bold phrases, giving his speech beauty.
“John of Gaunt:
This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England . . .”
In this famous monologue from William Shakespeare’s Richard II, the character John of Gaunt recites a list of England’s virtues. Each clause begins with “this” and then includes yet another image of just how perfect John of Gaunt seems to consider England to be. It is, to him, a “demi-paradise,” a “precious stone,” a “blessed plot,” and so forth.
This parallelism is therefore also an example of anaphora. He ends the monologue, however, by contrasting all these paradisiacal images with the fact that England has now tarnished its beauty by setting out to conquer other nations. Thus there is parallelism in the entire passage that ends with the antithesis of England “bound in with shame, / With inky blots and rotten parchment bonds.”
“I was a child and she was a child,
In this kingdom by the sea,
But we loved with a love that was more than love—
I and my Annabel Lee—
With a love that the winged seraphs of Heaven
Coveted her and me.”
Edgar Allen Poe uses parallelism in many of his poems, including this beautiful poem. The first line of this stanza contains the repetition of “was a child.” As parallelism, this serves to show that both the speaker and Annabel Lee were young when they first fell in love, but that their youth did not negate the depth of their love. The parallelism in this stanza creates rhythm and gives deeper meaning to the love that he and Annabel Lee shared.
“To generalize about war is like generalizing about peace. Almost everything is true. Almost nothing is true.”
Tim O’Brien’s marvelous story collection The Things They Carried has numerous examples of parallelism. Most notably, perhaps, is the title story in which O’Brien lists off the different items soldiers in the Vietnam War carried. That example of parallelism creates drama in the inanimate that begins to tell their own story. This excerpt shows a brilliant usage of parallelism in just three short sentences. O’Brien contrasts war and peace, as well as the concepts of truth and illusion.
“From laden boughs, from hands,
from sweet fellowship in the bins,
comes nectar at the roadside, succulent
peaches we devour, dusty skin and all,
comes the familiar dust of summer, dust we eat.
O, to take what we love inside,
to carry within us an orchard, to eat
not only the skin, but the shade,
not only the sugar, but the days, to hold
the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into
the round jubilance of peach.”
This lovely poem by Li-Young Lee has many instances of repetition. There is parallelism in the first stanza of reciting where the peaches have come from: “From laden boughs, from hands, from sweet fellowship in the bins.” The connection of these three images shows that the peaches are not just the work of nature, but also the work of humans picking them and providing them at roadside stands.
Lee goes on to provide parallelism in the next stanza with the similarly structured lines “not only the sin, but the shade, / not only the sugar, but the days.” Again, he gives credit to all the elements that have formed this fruit.
Here are comments and quotes from people and authors expressing their thoughts on the concept of parallelism.
“The value of parallel structure goes beyond aesthetics . . . It points up the structure of the sentence, showing readers what goes with what and keeping them on the right track.” (Claire K. Cook, Line by Line. Houghton Mifflin, 1985)
“Several studies have shown that in conjoined structures, even without ellipsis, parallelism of many types is helpful to the processor, in that the second conjunct is easier to process if it is parallel to the first in some way . . .” (Katy Carlson, Parallelism and Prosody in the Processing of Ellipsis Sentences, Routledge, 2002)
“Parallelism has the potential to create rhythm, emphasis, and drama as it clearly presents ideas or action. Consider this long, graceful (and witty) sentence that begins a magazine article on sneakers:
A long time ago—before sneaker companies had the marketing clout to spend millions of dollars sponsoring telecasts of the Super Bowl; before street gangs identified themselves by the color of their Adidas; before North Carolina State’s basketball players found they could raise a little extra cash by selling the freebie Nikes off their feet; and before a sneaker’s very sole had been gelatinized, Energaired, Hexalited, torsioned and injected with pressurized gas—sneakers were, well, sneakers. (E.M. Swift, “Farewell, My Lovely,” Sports Illustrated, February 19, 1990)
First note the obvious parallelism of four clauses beginning with the word before and proceeding with similar grammatical patterns. Then note the parallel list of sneaker attributes: gelatinized, Energaired and so on. This is writing with pizzazz. It moves. It almost makes you interested in sneakers! Of course you noticed the nice bit of word play—the sneaker’s very sole.” (Lauren Kessler and Duncan McDonald, When Words Collide: A Media Writer’s Guide to Grammar and Style, 7th ed. Thomson Learning, 2008)
Parallelism gives a sense of order to the thoughts we try to express in writing. It helps make sure that our statements are not only grammatically accurate, they are also pleasant to hear. It is a technique that not only writers should develop. Anyone who attempts to put pen to paper should try to hone their skills in constructing parallel structures.