One of the hardest writing strategies to teach effectively is “parallel structure.” Yet it’s incredibly useful in all kinds of writing, argumentative and expository as well as literary.
In my last post, I used an example from a terrific education site on grammar to illustrate how sentences could be packed with detail using “absolutes.” This example powerfully illustrates, as well, how parallel structure works.
“Down the long concourse they came unsteadily, Enid favouring her damaged hip, Alfred paddling at the air with loose-hinged hands and slapping the airport carpeting with poorly controlled feet, both of them carrying Nordic Pleasurelines shoulder bags and concentrating on the floor in front of them, measuring out the hazardous distance three paces at a time.”
(Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections. Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2001)
What makes this an example of parallelism?
Each descriptive phrase (in this case absolutes, which consist of a noun and its modifiers) precisely mirrors the grammatical form of the one that came before, with all the phrases ultimately connected to each other by an “coordinating conjunction,” in this case, “and.”
In this example there’s also a parallelism of meaning: the first two phrases compare Enid’s and Alfred’s physical actions
favouring her damaged hip
paddling at the air with loose-hinged hands and slapping the airport carpeting with poorly controlled feet
But the heart of the parallel structure lies in the perfect repetition of the main verb forms.
Here’s another example, using participles (“-ing” forms) and nouns to create two parallel scaffolds:
“Her moving wings ignited like tissue paper, enlarging the circle of light in the clearing and creating out of the darkness the sudden blue sleeves of my sweater, the green leaves of jewelweed by my side, the ragged red trunk of a pine.”
(Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm. Harper & Row, 1977)
Note the grammatical precision of the noun set: not just nouns preceded by “the” and adjectives but also each followed with a three-word prepositional phrase:
the sudden blue sleeves of my sweater
the green leaves of jewelweed by my side
the ragged red trunk of a pine
In literary writing, the use of parallelism, like the use of absolutes, can help you flow into your details so that they seem to be rhythmic extensions of your original clause, much like water flowing down a stream. In expository or argumentative writing, careful attention to parallelism can keep readers on track as you move through related ideas.
Here’s an example from one of my recent summaries on my other blog, College Composition Weekly (where I summarize recent research on the teaching of college writing). I’m presenting Steve Lamos’s argument in the March 2016 College English that job security for writing teachers not on the tenure track will remain elusive if the negative attitudes of college administrators and other powerful stakeholders are not addressed:
Although emotional labor is devalued across most educational contexts, Lamos writes, within more prestigious research universities it is especially “subject to a kind of gendered dismissal” based on a sense that it involves work that women find “inherently satisfying” and thus not in need of other compensation and that, by its nature, consists more of “pandering to difference” rather than enforcing academic standards (366).*
This sentence appears in the context of an academic discussion and is part of a “summary,” so it requires me to incorporate fairly complex information in a taut space. Parallelism holds the two points of this sentence together through the repetition of “that”:
on a sense
that it involves
that, by its nature, [it] consists
Readers of dense texts like this can benefit from knowing that as long as the long clauses are introduced by a repeated word and structure (“that + verb” in this case), they’re still in the same sentence, progressing through related points.
Writers surrender the power of parallelism when they forget that the last element of a list should echo the previous elements:
The lecture was accessible, helpful, and it gave me lots of good information.
He came in dripping sweat, panting for breath, and he was trembling with exhaustion.
The lecture was accessible, helpful, and informative.
He came in dripping sweat, panting for breath, and trembling with exhaustion.
In both cases, parallelism has allowed you to cut empty words (in the second case, you could even cut “and”).
So for fiction and essay writers (as well as poets!), parallelism is a tool for adding detail, creating rhythm, and connecting ideas. For writers in other contexts, it can serve as a logical, connective tool.
*Bonus: many constructions other than lists joined with “and” benefit from—and usually actually require—parallelism. Here, the “more of/rather than” construction is cemented through the mirroring verbs “pandering”/”enforcing.” Other constructions requiring parallelism include “neither/nor”; “not only/but also”; and “both/and.”
Do you have favorite examples of parallelism as a literary device, from your own or others’ writing? Share!