When I’m scrawling my notes in the margins of a manuscript (or, less romantically, using Microsoft Word’s “Comment” function), there are two words I use over and over again: “bad parallelism”.
It’s a phrase that has always tickled my fancy, mostly because it sounds like I’m scolding a dog. “No! Bad, BAD parallelism! SIT!” Anyway, funny as it may be, it’s a real grammatical term for something that many of us struggle with when writing.
Good and bad parallelism
Put simply, when two or more things are parallel, they correspond or relate to one another. The word “parallelism” has quite a few uses in writing/editing. Today, we’re going to focus specifically on parallelism between related elements in a list or sentence. That includes formal lists, in which each item gets its own line, and any sentence in which two or more related elements are named.
Let’s look at some examples of sentences, taken (obviously) from Friends episode summaries. The words in bold are the related elements:
Joey gets his first fan letter and ends up dating the woman who sent it.
Joey moves back in with Chandler, they kick out Eddie (by convincing him he never lived there in the first place) and they make up with each other.
The above examples are good parallelism, because they follow two rules:
(1) The elements follow on logically from their shared stem. In the first example, the two elements – gets his first fan letter and ends up dating the woman who sent it – share a common introduction, Joey. So we need to make sure they both follow on from that introduction in a grammatically correct way. We can test them out one by one: Joey gets his first fan letter makes sense, and so does Joey ends up dating the woman who sent it. In the second example, each element works as a stand-alone clause, so there’s no shared stem for us to worry about.
(2) The elements have the same structure, tense and mood. In the first example, the two elements follow the same rules. They both describe an action Joey carries out in the present tense. (If you want to get technical, you could say they’re both made up of a verb/verb phrase and a direct object, and that they are in the third-person present indicative. But even if you don’t know that jargon, it will be obvious to you that they match each other.) In the second example, the three elements – Joey moves back in with Chandler, they kick out Eddie (by convincing him he never lived there in the first place) and they make up with each other – also match in structure, tense and mood.
Now, let’s look at some examples of bad parallelism:
Meanwhile, in the post-delivery room, Joey looks for some tissue for an upset Rachel, picks up Ross’s jacket, and the ring falls to the floor.
This one fails the first part of our two-pronged test: the elements don’t follow on logically from the stem. The stem, in this case, is Joey. The first two elements work: Joey looks for some tissue for an upset Rachel and Joey picks up Ross’s jacket. But the third one fails: Joey the ring falls to the floor doesn’t make sense. One way we can fix it is by inserting he before picks. Now, the elements don’t have (or need) a stem at all, because each one works as an independent clause:
Meanwhile, in the post-delivery room, Joey looks for some tissue for an upset Rachel, he picks up Ross’s jacket, and the ring falls to the floor.
Here’s another example of bad parallelism:
The gang makes New Year’s resolutions: Chandler cannot make fun of his friends, Rachel will gossip less, Ross will do something new daily, Joey will learn to play the guitar, Phoebe will pilot a commercial jet and Monica resolves to take more pictures of all the friends together.
This one fails part two of our two-pronged test. Most of the elements follow the same structure: [name] + will + [verb] + [object/modifier]. But the first, Chandler cannot make fun of his friends, and the sixth, Monica resolves to take more pictures of all the friends together, do not. We can easily fix the problem by rewriting them as Chandler will not make fun of his friends and Monica will take more pictures of all the friends together.
A tip for tricky sentences
Sometimes, it’s really hard to identify the stem and the separate elements within a sentence. In those cases, I often try rewriting the sentence as if it were a formal list, with each item on a new line (not as a permanent change – just to help me work it out). Here’s a sentence that sets off my bad-parallelism radar:
Chandler tells Erica about their jobs, how much Monica wants this child and he feels horrible because he cannot give his wife this one thing.
To work out whether the sentence is, in fact, bad, we can rewrite it so that the stem is the introductory part of the list and the elements are the items:
Chandler tells Erica:
(a) about their jobs;
(b) how much Monica wants this child; and
(c) he feels horrible because he cannot give his wife this one thing.
Let’s start with the first part of the test: do the elements logically follow from the stem? Chandler tells Erica about their jobs makes sense. So does Chandler tells Erica how much Monica wants this child. And so does Chandler tells Erica he feels horrible because he cannot give his wife this one thing. So that’s a pass.
Now, let’s look at the second part of the test: do the elements match one another in structure? The answer is a resounding “no”: about their jobs, how much Monica wants this child and he feels horrible because he cannot give his wife this one thing are clearly not parallel. Here’s a possible rewrite:
Chandler tells Erica that he and Monica have good jobs, Monica really wants this child and he feels horrible because he cannot give his wife this one thing.
All three elements follow on from the stem, and their structures are similar enough (subject + verb + object, with an extra subordinate clause attached to the third element) that the reader won’t struggle with the meaning.
Correlative conjunctions (aka evil twins)
In our examples so far, the separate elements have been joined by the simplest conjunction possible: and. Things get slightly more complicated in sentences that have correlative conjunctions: that is, word pairs that join two elements. Common correlative conjunctions include both … and, either … or, neither … nor, between … and, not only … but also and whether … or.
These little tricksters are one of the main causes of bad parallelism, because it’s easy to get the placement of them wrong. If we call the two elements x and y, the format should always be, for example, either x or y (that format applies to all the correlative conjunctions). This example is correct:
Phoebe volunteers to help collect money for the poor during Christmas time but finds that many people take advantage of the tin either to get change or to dispose of trash.
It would be wrong to write, for example, take advantage of the tin to either get change or to dispose of trash – that doesn’t follow the either x or y format, because either is jammed right in the middle of the first element.
Once you’ve made sure your placement is correct, you can treat these sentences just like the previous examples, making sure they pass the two-pronged test. When you’re working out what the stem and elements are, just disregard the correlative-conjunction words, like you did with and before.
In a nutshell
Whenever a list or sentence contains related elements, those elements should:
(1) lead on logically from the shared stem, if there is one; and
(2) match in terms of structure, tense and mood.
If you’re struggling to identify the stem and elements within a sentence, try breaking it up into a formal list, with each element on a new line.
When two related elements, x and y, appear with a correlative (two-word) conjunction, the structure should be, for example, both x and y or either x or y.