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Parallelism: Writing with Repetition and Rhythm

   

I remember the second time I read A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens’ classic novel of the French Revolution. The first time, in high school, was forgettable. Despite the twisted plot and colourful characters, I, like most of my classmates, slogged through the chapters, dutifully concentrating on the parts I knew we’d have to discuss in class or dissect on the exam.

But the second time things were different. I was in my mid-twenties, trying to fatten up a meagre freelance income by tutoring students and adults in just about anything language-related they were willing to pay me for. Among my students was a polite sixteen-year-old, gifted at soccer and math but hopeless at English, who gazed at his copy of A Tale of Two Cities with the pained and surprised look of one who had ordered a pizza but been delivered a braised rabbit.

By this time, having taught some courses on grammar and style, I knew a tumbril-load more about the principles of writing than I did as a teenager. As I reread the novel’s famous opening lines, I was struck by the technique Dickens used to begin his story, the technique that spun an entire paragraph from one sentence: the technique of parallelism.

"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 . . . ."

Dickens was able to pile up the stark contrasts of this turbulent era, one upon the other, without losing his way because he expressed them in similar, balanced, parallel structures.

Here we see the first virtue of parallelism: it is excellent for conveying contrast. But parallelism serves many other purposes. It’s an ideal way of expressing addition and alternatives. It helps maintain consistency and clarity in lists and series. It sharpens ideas by aligning them and showing how they are related. And it often makes writing more dramatic and memorable.

Contrast

As we saw with the Dickens example, using similar structures is, oddly enough, one of the best ways to show differences. When some of a sentence’s words are the same, the words that are different stand out. That’s the reason we remember statements like these:

You can run, but you can’t hide.

Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.
(John F. Kennedy)

Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.
(Groucho Marx)

Notice the inversion of ideas that accompanies the parallelism in these examples. The sentences are telling us, in one way or another, that X is the case but Y is not.

Addition

Using parallel structures is also an effective way of combining similar ideas. In this next example the reappearance of a preposition, followed each time by an article, tells the reader "Here’s another similar thing, and another and another."

  • The dreadlocked courier cycled around the warehouse, past the loading dock, through the parking lot and toward the store.

It’s wise to check parallelism carefully whenever you use correlative conjunctions (conjunctions that come in pairs), some of which (both . . . and, not only . . . but also) indicate addition. Make sure these conjunctions appear right at the beginning of the parallel elements, so that they can properly introduce the elements.

  • NO Not only is Bethany a sought-after yoga instructor but also a first-class motorcycle mechanic.
  • YES Bethany is not only a sought-after yoga instructor but also a first-class motorcycle mechanic.

Alternatives

Other correlative conjunctions, in particular either . . . or, neither . . . nor and whether . . . or, signal alternatives. Once again, make sure the conjunctions appear in the right place.

  • NO Either he plans to take the M.B.A. program or to spend the year travelling.
  • YES He plans either to take the M.B.A. program or to spend the year travelling.

In the next example, the three parallel structures are joined only by or, a coordinating conjunction, not by the correlative whether . . . or. Whether is in a sense outside the parallelism, which is created by the series of three article + adjective + noun structures.

  • Music is a wonderful world to be a part of, whether you are a famous singer, a talented musician or a bit player.

Lists and series

Items in lists and series should always be balanced—all nouns, all prepositional phrases, all infinitive phrases and so on. In everyday writing, this is one of the most common applications of parallelism. It is also, in some ways, one of the loosest. Exact, word-by-word parallelism isn’t necessary in lists and series; it’s enough for each item to begin with the same type of word.

In the bulleted list below, for instance, the verb form at the beginning of each item establishes the parallelism. The words that follow the verb don’t need to balance as well.

The candidate must be qualified to do the following:

  • Analyse and interpret legislation and policies
  • Coordinate activities for key players in the appeals process
  • Communicate effectively orally and in writing
  • Interact well with others

Parallelism is just as important in lists and series that appear in regular sentence format. Check carefully for any imbalanced structures.

  • NO The duties of the job included babysitting, house cleaning and the preparation of the meals.
  • YES The duties of the job included babysitting, house cleaning and preparing the meals. (or cooking)

Usually it’s fine to add a modifying word or phrase to one parallel element but not the others. As long as all the elements hinge on the same type of word or structure, they are parallel.

  • Miss Postlewait informed Ethan that his slacker generation was spoiled, irresponsible and otherwise unappealing.

How much is enough?

Writers often wonder how many introductory words to repeat when creating parallelism. The answer is, it depends. Two factors come into play: (1) how long the parallel elements are and (2) how emphatic they should be. Look at this example:

  • A national task force recommended improving public education by lengthening the school day, raising teachers’ salaries and integrating more technology into the curriculum.

The series of three -ing verbs is enough for effective parallelism. Including the introductory by with each element isn’t necessary. However, if the parallel elements were longer, it would be wise to repeat by for clarity:

  • A national task force recommended improving public education by lengthening the school day as well as the semester cycle, by raising the salaries of teachers and administrators and by integrating more technology into the curriculum.

Even if the parallel elements stayed in their original, fairly short state, we might want to repeat by for emphasis. The extra repetition gives the sentence a more rhetorical feel, elevating it from normal prose to something more dramatic, like an essay or a speech:

  • A national task force recommended improving public education by lengthening the school day, by raising teachers’ salaries and by integrating more technology into the curriculum.

Parallelism is an invaluable device for any writer, whether creative or literary, corporate or technical. It is the source of balance; it is the source of rhythm. It is the simplest of techniques; it is the strongest of techniques. It rings in our ears; it stays in our minds.

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