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What Is Parallelism (and Why Should You Care)?

In writing, certain stylistic flourishes distinguish the so-so from the so amazing. Whether it be a rhetorical question (who doesn’t love those?) or alliteration (they’re simply stunning), we are taught that using different styles of writing will set us apart from the crowd.

But what about parallelism? What is it? And what does it have to offer? Well, keep reading to find out how parallelism works and when to use it. (By the way, my use of three questions in a row is a classic example of parallelism.)

What is Parallelism?

According to Merriam-Webster, parallelism is shown when an author employs “repeated syntactical similarities introduced for rhetorical effect.” A classic example of this is the latin phrase veni, vidi, vici. Translated to “I came, I saw, I conquered,” this phrase is commonly attributed to Julius Caesar making one of his famous speeches to the Roman Senate.

What makes this phrase one of the most memorable examples of parallelism is that, when translated into English, there is an impact – a directness – that is the result of leaving some things out and letting the punctuation do the work.

Imagine if the phrase was “I came, and I saw, and I conquered.” Meh. I’m not impressed.

However, by letting the commas do the work, you make an impact through the directness of the sentence. Here are some other examples from literature of parallelism at work (taken from this index of literary terms):

  • “To err is human; to forgive divine.” (Alexander Pope)
  • “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” (Charles Dickens)
  • “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal.’ I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.” (Martin Luther King Jr.)

As you can see from these examples, parallelism can take all types of forms, but the point of parallelism remains: you are drawing attention to the similarity or difference of ideas through their placement in a sentence.

How Does Parallelism Work?

Let’s look at the Martin Luther King Jr. excerpt I gave above. Where is the parallelism in that excerpt?

Through repeated use of “I have a dream,” King is highlighting that these simple truths – equality for all, concern for family, judgment based on character – do not exist currently for black and brown people. However, he makes an important shift by concluding “I have a dream today.” He takes what was, a mere sentence or two before, a distant dream that highlighted the disappointment of the current era, to an action plan for the here and now.

Few of us can be as powerful orators and writers as Martin Luther King Jr. But the strategies he employed can be helpful for you in your professional writing.

See more of King’s rhetorical expertise in the video below:

How Can I Use Parallelism in My Professional Writing?

Like all rhetorical devices, use parallelism with caution and care. It can be overused quickly and becomes a writing crutch instead of the powerful device it is meant to be.

That being said, parallelism can and should be used when you are trying to drive home a point. Think about how parallelism can be used in the following examples:

  1. When concluding a presentation, where you want to make sure that the audience gets your main points.
  2. When closing an email to highlight the content.
  3. When pitching or distinguishing your idea from others.

When you use it, make sure that you are using the rhetorical device, instead of it using you. If parallelism is done wrong, it sticks out like a sore thumb. Check out these examples of faulty parallel structure, from this worksheet.

1. Walking and to swim are good exercise.
Why this is icky: The verb tense is all off. “Walking” and “to swim” aren’t in the same tense, so the sentence feels, and is, odd.

2. Dot and I thought the bargains we found were better than our friends.
Why this is icky: Parallelism is supposed to help clarity, not hurt it. Ending this sentence with “more than our friends” is confusing. There are lots of ways this sentence could be edited to help clarity, but to keep up with the parallelism theme of the blog post, try this one: Dot and I thought the bargains we found were better than the bargains our friends found. As I mentioned earlier, parallelism is a great way to talk about the relationship between ideas, but you still have to be clear about what you’re comparing!

3. The prisoners passed us with hanging heads, drooping shoulders, and their feet shuffled.
Why this is icky: Oh, so many reasons. But think about how you would change this sentence to improve the parallel structure. For me, I’d go with: The prisoners passed us with their heads hanging, their shoulders drooping, and their feet shuffling.

Parallelism is a tool to employ carefully, not a way of life. Use it wisely, and you will be rewarded with clear and compelling sentences that are fun to write and read!

Check out these additional resources for diving into the specifics of parallelism:

1. Purdue Online Writing Lab
2. Towson University Online Writing Center
3. Magoosh Professional Writing Services

P.S. Become a better writer. Find out more here.

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