What is Grammatical Parallelism and Why It Matters

What is Grammatical Parallelism and Why It Matters
Academics and scientists who publish their research probably do not need any reason beyond professionalism to ensure that they always write clearly and correctly. They are professional researchers, professional authors and, in most cases, professional teachers as well. Text that is a model of clarity and completely free of errors conveys this professionalism and is also expected as a scholarly standard by publishers, colleagues, employers, students and other potential readers. However, there are additional reasons for observing the rules and practices of correct grammar and punctuation when writing scholarly prose. Primary among them is the accurate communication of complex material, in which the correct use of grammatical parallelism can play an important part. Parallelism enables the effective organisation of material in series and lists and also contributes to an accomplished writing style. Furthermore, it is known to increase the legibility of a text and render complicated sentences easier for readers to process, which can only inspire greater comprehension and retention of the research presented.

What exactly is grammatical parallelism? Basically, it is a parallel construction in which there is a balance of similar phrases or clauses that share a particular grammatical structure. ‘The professor teaches English classes in the lecture hall, provides tutorial sessions in her office and offers writing advice on the university website’ observes parallelism, with all three activities expressed using the same syntactical pattern. Were one of the activities to be conveyed via a different grammatical structure, the parallelism would fall apart: ‘The professor teaches English classes in the lecture hall, provides tutorial sessions in her office and on the university website offers writing advice.’ The sentence is not only decidedly more awkward, but it has also become incorrect because the valid syntactical relationship between the subject of the sentence (the professor) and the last activity (on the university website offers writing advice) has been lost. The intended meaning has been obscured as well, with ‘The professor…on the university website offers writing advice’ connecting ‘on the university website’ with the ‘professor,’ not the ‘advice.’

The most obvious way to resolve the problem is to apply parallelism akin to that I have used in my original sentence, but there are other possibilities. For one, the parallelism can be dropped and the sentence written thus: ‘The professor teaches English classes in the lecture hall and provides tutorial sessions in her office, and on the university website she offers writing advice.’ The repeated use of ‘and’ here might seem awkward to some readers, so the last ‘and’ could be removed and a semicolon used instead of the comma: ‘…in her office; on the university website she offers writing advice.’ Another option is to add commas around ‘on the university website,’ which changes the rhythm of the sentence and makes that extra ‘and’ less prominent. Alternatively, commas could surround ‘on the university website’ in a structure more similar to my original sentence: ‘The professor teaches English classes in the lecture hall, provides tutorial sessions in her office and, on the university website, offers writing advice.’ The resulting sentence may not observe parallelism as strictly as the original did, but it is effective and remains grammatically correct.

There are in fact many instances in which deviations from grammatical parallelism are not strictly incorrect, and sometimes the variations constitute efficient ways of expressing conditions, variations and exceptions. Most of the time, however, they are simply awkward slips and should be repaired with a parallel structure. ‘She loves reading, writing and to teach,’ for instance, is not grammatically incorrect, but it should nonetheless be improved with one of the following possibilities: ‘She loves reading, writing and teaching,’ ‘She loves to read, write and teach’ or ‘She loves to read, to write and to teach,’ depending on personal preferences and semantic emphasis. In ‘The article must be well written, carefully researched and follow the guidelines consistently,’ on the other hand, there is a grammatical problem, though not a glaring one, because ‘well written’ and ‘carefully researched’ continue the text from ‘must be,’ whereas ‘follow the guidelines consistently’ continues from ‘must’ and does not use ‘be’ at all. A better sentence would be ‘The article must be well written and carefully researched, and it must also follow the guidelines consistently.’

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