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Friday, November 24, 2006

I came, I saw, I conquered

Today’s episode of Little Miss Know-It-All: Parallel Construction.

I’d like to see a show of hands on this: Who would like to make their writing clearer, easier and shorter? Great!

Now, another show of hands: Who would like it if the things they read were sharper, smarter and didn’t ramble on and on about something really boring that completely broke the rhythm that the author was clearly trying to set up? Great!

Parallel construction is a big fancy phrase that really just means that words or phrases are connected. By keeping similar parts of the sentence in the same form, you can link them together in a way that makes sense to the reader:

Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.

Your manuscript is both good and original, but the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good.

Parallel construction is quite delightful when used correctly. Its patterns can give a sentence emphasis and power:

We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.

It can even be used throughout a speech or document to create emphasis and power:

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up…I have a dream that my four little children…I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama…I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted.

Unfortunately, it can be painful in the wrong hands:

There are things we know we know, things we don’t know we know, things we know we don’t know, and things we don’t know we don’t know.

Technically, this sentence is OK as far as parallel construction goes. However, it smacks of a grammatical riddle I once heard: Tom, where John had had “had”, had had “had had”. “Had had” had had the teacher’s approval. This is BAD parallel construction, but thanks for trying. The other mistake I often see is:

Thanks for coming to my birthday party, bringing a gift, and the flowers are really nice.

Ouch. Or:

There are reports that the boy was beaten, molested and is now a drug addict.

Oh dear. CNN should have known better.

These errors are jarring to the reader. They set up an expectation that the sentences will end a certain way. Then they break that expectation. When done correctly, parallel construction makes your reader think that you know how to write, that you’re in control of your words, and that you’ve put energy into getting it right. Remember that you are writing a list, and that everything in the list must be in the same form: nouns, gerunds, infinitives, phrases or clauses.