What Is Parallelism and Why Is It So Important in Academic Writing?
The term ‘parallelism’ refers to the repeated and balanced use of similar words, phrases or clauses that share a specific grammatical structure or syntactical pattern. As a writing tool for academic and scientific authors, parallelism clarifies intended meaning even when a sentence is complicated and renders complex text more legible, comprehensible and memorable for readers. Parallel structures introduce concepts of equal importance and can enable the effective organisation of research material and the communication of sophisticated comparisons and contrasts. When used with thought and care, parallelism can not only establish a pleasing rhythm, but also promote an elegant style and pack a persuasive logical punch, which is as desirable when presenting a paper at a conference as it is when preparing a manuscript for publication or devising a thesis statement for a doctoral dissertation. If you hope to report the findings of your research to your peers and other readers in clear and accomplished English prose, you will therefore need to master parallel structures, and this article is designed to help you do just that by focussing on constructions in which parallelism is particularly important and problematic for academic and scientific writers.
Parallelism is essential but all too frequently neglected in lists and series. The same basic forms and structures should be used for every item in a list, as they are, for instance in the first of my sentences above: ‘the repeated and balanced use of similar words, phrases or clauses.’ Each of the three items here (‘words,’ ‘phrases’ and ‘clauses’) is expressed by a plural noun, and the need for balance holds true whether ‘or,’ ‘and’ or ‘as well as’ is used to join the items. Parallelism is also necessary when a list contains longer items such as phrases or clauses. For example, ‘I like drawing in the morning, writing in the afternoon and reading in the evening’ observes parallelism because a gerund (with an ‘-ing’ ending) opens each item and is followed by a prepositional ‘in’ phrase. Were the sentence to read “I like drawing in the morning, to write in the afternoon and the time for reading in the evening,’ it would be an instance of faulty parallelism (also known as a parallel structure error), with the first item beginning with a gerund, the second with an infinitive verb and the third with a noun followed by an infinitive verb. The individual phrases are grammatically sound, but only one of the structures should be used in a single list, so a correct alternative might use infinitives instead of gerunds: ‘I like to draw in the morning, write in the afternoon and read in the evening.’ Notice that the ‘to’ can be dropped from the parallel infinitives after the first verb, but it can instead be retained for clarity or effect: ‘I like to draw in the morning, to write in the afternoon and to read in the evening.’
Parallelism is also a concern and prone to errors when authors use correlative conjunctions, which are pairs of conjunctions that work together in a sentence, such as ‘both…and,’ ‘either…or,’ ‘neither…nor’ and ‘not only…but also.’ ‘Parallelism can not only establish a pleasing rhythm, but also promote an elegant style and pack a persuasive logical punch’ from my first paragraph above is a correct example, with the phrases after ‘not only’ and ‘but also’ matching each other in terms of structure (a verb followed by an object). ‘Parallelism can not only establish a pleasing rhythm, but also an elegant style and a persuasive logical punch’ is faulty because a verb appears after ‘not only,’ but not after ‘but also.’ If the same verb is appropriate for the ‘but also’ part of the sentence as well as the ‘not only’ part, it should be placed before ‘not only,’ as in ‘Parallelism can establish not only a pleasing rhyth
m, but also an elegant style and a persuasive logical punch.’ Remember as you are refining constructions of this kind that ‘both’ indicates a plural structure, so it requires a plural verb (‘are’ in this example): ‘both meaning and style are enhanced by parallelism.’ ‘Either…or’ and ‘neither…nor,’ on the other hand, are singular structures that take singular verbs (‘is’ here): ‘neither meaning nor style is enhanced by faulty parallelism.’ Only if the nouns themselves are plural, should the verb be plural: ‘neither words nor phrases are exempt.’
Comparisons and contrasts using ‘than’ or ‘as’ also require parallel structures for absolute clarity and accuracy. ‘He is taller than I am’ and ‘He is as tall as I am’ are correct if simple examples, with a subject and present tense verb both before (he is) and after (I am) each of the comparative words (‘than’ and ‘as…as’) This parallelism means that the second verb (‘am’ here) can be eliminated and the subject can be used alone in the second half of the comparison without affecting the meaning: ‘He is taller than I’ and ‘He is as tall as I.’ Do note that under no circumstances should either of the subjects in this construction be changed into an object. ‘He is better at writing sentences than I’ means that he writes better sentences than I do, but ‘He is better at writing sentences than me’ is grammatically incorrect and also nonsensical since it means that he writes sentences better than he writes me. If you are in doubt when forming comparative constructions, simply add the missing verb – ‘He is better at writing sentences than me am’ – and the error should become immediately apparent.
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