I like things organized. My desk at work is always neat and tidy, and I feel most at home when everything is stored in its proper place. Even when I was a child, I always put away my toys (and my sister’s) just so when it was time to clean up.
That aspect of my personality is one of the reasons why I’m a grammar enthusiast; I like to organize my words in the proper way, just like everything else in my life. And that’s why one of my favorite grammatical principles is that of parallelism, which dictates that similar phrases, clauses, or ideas be expressed with the same structure. In other words, you should organize similar thoughts in a similar way.
If I asked you what you did on Saturday night, you might say you had pizza, beer, and sang karaoke. Although that sounds like a fun Saturday night, I’d be distressed by your response because you violated the rule of parallel structure. In that sentence, the verb “had” could apply to both pizza and beer, but the verb “sang” introduces a new phrase. To tell me about your evening using parallel construction, you’d have to either use a verb that applied to all three nouns or give each noun its own verb. So, if you wanted to tell me about your night in a grammatically correct way, you could say, “I enjoyed pizza, beer, and karaoke,” or “I ate pizza, drank beer, and sang karaoke.”
If I asked you what you thought of the musical “Hamilton,” you might say that you share my enthusiasm and love of the show. While I’d be thrilled to hear that, I’d also be disappointed in your response’s lack of parallelism. When using two words that take different prepositions, you need to include both prepositions in the sentence. If you were using only the word “enthusiasm,” you’d say “enthusiasm for,” using “for” not “of,” like used after “love.” You need to include the correct prepositions in your full sentence: “I share your enthusiasm for and love of ‘Hamilton.’ ”
One variety of parallel structure that especially seems to trip everyone up is the “not only … but also” construction. For example, you might tell me that Josh Groban is not only funny and charming but also has a great singing voice. While I’d certainly agree with that sentiment, I’d once again be disheartened by your failure to use parallel construction. In this type of sentence, the words that follow “not only” and “but also” should be parallel, and the words that precede “not only” should apply to both of those parallel phrases. If you wanted to compliment Mr. Groban in a grammatically correct way, you could say “Josh Groban is not only funny and charming but also a great singer,” or “Josh Groban not only is funny and charming but also has a great singing voice.”
The principle of parallelism doesn’t just apply to complete sentences. Even if you’re simply listing a group of words together, all of those words should appear in the same format. If you’re highlighting your skills on a resume, you might talk yourself up using words like “creative, attention to detail, organized, and dedication.” While those are all great ways to describe yourself, it would be hard for me to see past your lack of parallel structure in considering you for a job, at least a job in editing. “Creative” and “organized” are adjectives, while “attention to detail” and “dedication” are nouns. To provide a parallel list, you could use all adjectives (creative, detail-oriented, organized, and dedicated) or all nouns (creativity, attention to detail, organization, and dedication).
Unlike many other grammatical mistakes, parallel construction errors can be difficult to detect. The best advice for catching them in your own writing is the same advice I give for editing in general: Read your writing out loud. If there’s a parallelism problem, it will sound wrong when you hear yourself say it. If something does sound wrong, ask yourself if all your similar thoughts and ideas are expressed in a similar way, and find a way to rewrite them if the answer is no.
Remember, whether you’re organizing your workspace, cleaning your home, or writing down your thoughts, organization is key. And when it comes to writing, parallel structure keeps things in line.