Parallelism is a simple rule of English grammar. Used correctly it makes reading a pleasurable experience. It lends a grace to what is being read and written. Questions on parallelism are common in exams like GRE, GMAT, TOEFL, CAT and SAT.
Parallelism or parallel structure of sentences can often be observed in literature and poetry. Parallelism is matching of grammatical structures in a sentence. It lends a rhythm, a refinement to what is being written and helps avoid repetition. For example, on reading:
Sam has a pen in his bag.
Sam has a pencil in his bag.
Sam has two books in his bag.
you would find it boring and get the impression that the writer is unpolished. A better way of conveying the same would be:
Sam has a pen, a pencil and two books in his bag.
Parallelism as a concept means that words used to describe identical concepts should essentially be grammatically identical. Sentences which are not parallel cannot always be considered incorrect.
Let us understand the concept further by comparing the sentences given below:
Reena is a good dancer but average at acting.
Reena is a good dancer but an average actor.
Reena is good at dancing but average at acting.
In the above sentences, Reena is being described as a dancer and an actor. The first sentence uses a gerund (acting) and a noun (dancer). The words being used to describe Reena are not in the identical structure. Parallelism requires that words being used to describe a concept should be grammatically identical. The second and third sentences use words of the same form to describe Reena.
Parallelism requires that nouns should be similar to nouns, gerunds with gerunds, participles with participles and so on. It requires that ideas or concepts should be put together using the same structure.
Questions on parallelism are a common feature in the sentence correction sections of exams like GMAT, GRE, SAT and CAT etc. As a concept it is easy to understand, and as a problem, easy to handle. The skills that are required are a keen eye and an understanding of the basic principles.
Instances of Parallelism
Various instances of parallelism are discussed below. The sentences are marked with either (Χ) for incorrect or (√) for correct.
- Tom is known for his honesty and original ideas. (Χ)
- Tom is known for his honesty and originality. (√)
- My previous company has moved and is selling their office space. (Χ)
- My previous company has moved and sold their office space. (√)
- My previous company is moving and selling their office space. (√)
- She is charming, courteous and a beauty. (Χ)
- She is charming, courteous and beautiful.(√)
- Sam does his work neatly and with care. (Χ)
- Sam does his work neatly and carefully. (√)
There are five rules to be mastered to be able to write parallel sentences. The rules are
1) Be careful while using coordinating conjunctions.
- To lead a healthy life, sleep for eight hours and eating a balanced diet are important. (Χ)
- To lead a healthy life, it is important to sleep for eight hours and eat a balanced diet. (√)
- To lead a healthy life, sleeping for eight hours and eating a balanced diet are important. (√)
2) Observe parallel structure when elements are in a list or in a series.
- Traditional societies believed the king to be a religious, a political, a social and head of the military forces. (Χ)
- Traditional societies believed the king to be a religious, political, social and a military head. (√)
3) Observe parallel structure of sentences while comparing elements.
- I like to read books over watching movies. (Χ)
- I like reading books over watching movies. (√)
4) Parallel structure has to be observed when elements are joined by a linking verb or any form of ‘be’.
- ‘To succeed is thriving ’- is our motto. (Χ)
- ‘To succeed is to thrive’- is our motto. (√)
5) Parallel structure is also to be observed while using correlative conjunctions.
- Sweena wants both a satisfying job and that pays well. (Χ)
- Sweena wants both a satisfying and a well paying job. (√)
The best way to catch errors of parallelism is to read a sentence aloud. If that is not possible read the sentence carefully with full attention. These questions are easy and help one to score. One of the best examples of parallelism is observed in the "I have a dream" speech of Martin Luther King, Jr. More examples of parallelism can be read at Parallel Form.