Parallel Construction: What it is, what it isn’t, and how to write better despite hating your 8th-grade English teacher

Parallel Construction (PC from now on) is a type of sentence structure that confounds even “good” writers and many professional editors. Sorry! If you understand PC, then you must have HATED the title of this post!

YES! Points to you if you recognized that this post’s title is NOT written in proper Parallel Construction! I wrote: “…What it is, what it isn’t, and how to write better…”

parallel construction defn

image from

When we write a string (a series) of phrases or words, the rule of PC is: the members of any string must be in the same form or format.
When they are not in the same form/format, then they must be separated by giving them different wording and punctuation than when they are Parallel.

Here is what is incorrect about that part of the title, according to PC. In the title’s string, I start with “what it is” and then go on to “what it isn’t.” Fine, so far.

The mistake comes in the next phrase. This phrase seems as if it is part of the same string, but it can’t be, due to its differing format: “how to write better.”

If I can’t write what I want to say in the same format as the two or more members of the series that preceded the next phrase or word, but I insist on including that content in that series’ sentence, I must change the structure of the sentence, like this:
“…what it is and what it isn’t, and how to write better…” adding the “and” between the two similar series’ members and a comma after those before the “and” that precedes the odd one out.

Confused? Here is another example of a mistake in Parallel Construction I lifted from a video description on Youtube today: “Daniel Radcliffe is smart, rich, and has a good sense of humor.”

Here we have two members of the series that are one-word adjectives, “smart” and “rich.” To keep that string in its proper, parallel format, the next quality that describes Radcliffe also should be a one-word adjective, but it is not. Not only that, but the errant final phrase starts with a verb and keeps going.

The third member of that contumacious string is an imposter, not being a one-word adjective. This pretender to the above sentence’s string membership has an entire phrase as its quality’s entourage: “has a good sense of humor.” DISALLOWED!

If the author wishes to describe Radcliffe with these three qualities yet write correctly, s/he could write: “Daniel Radcliffe is smart, rich and funny.” See? The three one-word adjectives are in perfect Parallel form. No comma is needed or desirable after “rich” in this version, by the way.

OR, to maintain the exact meaning even better, try this: “Daniel Radcliffe is smart and rich and has a good sense of humor, too.”

Unfortunately, what I see (and hear) repeatedly are strings with two or more members that are properly Parallel while the final member is not. Errors in Parallel Construction are rampant. Fortunately, they are easy to detect. Unfortunately, they are sometimes awkward to correct.

The trick in correcting errors in PC is to avoid making the edited sentence sound phony or stiff while maintaining the precise meaning the author intends. Not so easy to do in many cases, you will find.

Some Tips to Recognizing and Correcting Errors in Parallel Construction:

Parallel construction advice

image from Thanks to Walden University for both graphics.

  • Notice sentences that have lists. Check the form/format of each part of the list. A series or string of three or more words or phrases is the only place PC can be used correctly (or incorrectly). Some editors talk about non-Parallel Construction of paragraphs or even chapters, but they are using the term incorrectly. What they mean is this author has problems with consistency in formatting or length of paragraphs, perhaps, or has style similarities that aren’t carried over properly among paragraphs or chapters (these are common problems but are not correctly called non-PC).
  • When the members of the string are verbs, make sure they are in the same form. For example, verbs in a string that have “ing” as their endings can’t suddenly change form. “She was glad to be eating, reading and walking…” should have no errant infinitives, such as “to take a walk,” sneaking in at the end.
  • Each member of a string that has phrases should have identical phrasing. That means that when the first two phrases each has three words, so the third and subsequent members should each have three words. Example: “I hate people who talk on the phone, eat at their desks, yell across rooms and pick their noses during lunch breaks” is correct. However, “I hate people who talk on their cell phones, eat whatever smelly food they want at their desks or cubicles, yell at their friends across the room, down the halls, or wherever they are, and pick their noses during lunch breaks” is not. Though presenting funny images vividly, the second sentence is a mess, grammatically.
  • Make sure the beginning of each bullet point or list is written in the same form/format. When you start a list (numbered or bulleted) with an action verb (“Make sure”), or an adverb (“How”), keep using that.
  • Also, when you start a list of items in which the first item starts with a capital letter or italics, keep doing that. When each point ends with a period, keep that format as well. The first piece of advice concerns Parallel Construction. The next two tips concern parallel formatting.

    I hope this brief lesson in Parallel Construction improves your understanding, your speaking and your writing.

    If it does not, don’t blame, call or come to find me and kill me.

    Correct my (intentional) errors in the comments section, below. That constitutes your final exam.

    Thanks for playing Grammar with me!