When Charles Dickens wrote the opening sentence to A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” he was employing a literary tool called parallelism that seeks to balance the sound, meaning, or meter of a sentence for deliberate effect. Using the same words (“of times”) adds balance and rhythm that can make the words more persuasive and impactful. Other examples include:
- “Alice ran into the room, into the garden, and into our hearts.”
- “Whenever you need me, wherever you need me, I will be there for you.”
While writers and poets may choose to use parallelism for positive effect, academic writers should follow the rules to ensure that their writing doesn’t underestimate the importance of parallelism in basic sentence structure.
In English grammar, parallelism refers to the similarity of structure between the components of a sentence. By definition, items in a series should appear in parallel grammatical form. Nouns should be listed with other nouns, verbs with an –ing form should be balanced with other –ing verbs. Failure to maintain this balance is called faulty parallelism:
Sally likes line dancing and to write poetry = faulty
Sally likes line dancing and writing poetry = balanced verb –ing
My first year geography teacher was informative, funny, and a source of inspiration = faulty (two adjectives and a noun)
My first year geography teacher was informative, funny, and inspiring = balanced (all three adjectives)
Fixing faulty parallelism often requires deconstructing the sentence into its component parts to verify the balance (or lack thereof). Consistency in the use of adjectives or noun phrases, as in the example of the geography teacher above, can be easy to spot and to correct. Compound or complex sentences that use coordinating or subordinating conjunctions can be a little tougher to catch:
My English professor told me to revise my assignment and that I should pay particular attention to faulty parallelism.
In the above sentence, the incorrect use of the subordinating conjunction that leaves the sentence out of balance. To correct it, you could use “that” on both sides of the sentence:
My English professor told me that I should revise my assignment and that I should pay particular attention to faulty parallelism
Or, a more concise and elegant solution would be to balance the infinitive (to + verb) on each side as follows:
My English professor told me to revise my assignment and to pay particular attention to faulty parallelism
Respecting Your Reader
While faulty parallelism may seem like a minor transgression when compared to other more glaring grammatical errors such as incorrect spelling, it’s important to respect your reader here. Information is more readily absorbed in parallel form, and since the provision of information is typically the purpose of your writing, doesn’t it make sense to take the extra time to make sure that your writing is presented in a form that best achieves that objective?