Writing for Business and Pleasure
Copyright by Stephen Wilbers
www.wilbers.com

Columns on parallel structure

First published by the Minneapolis Star Tribune: January 24, 1992

Using parallel construction honors contract with reader

by Stephen Wilbers

If Benjamin Franklin had written, "Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and a C.E.O.," we wouldn't be quoting him today.

Instead, he began his list with two adjectives, "healthy" and "wealthy," and completed it not with a noun, "C.E.O.," but with a third adjective, "wise," thereby rendering his maxim memorable. What he did was follow parallel construction, a technique that lends a sentence rhythm and cadence. It sounds good, and it creates emphasis.

The principle of parallel construction is a simple one. Plainly put, the reader expects consistency. Ideas that are related to each other (grammarians like to call these "coordinate" ideas) should be expressed in parallel form. Expressions similar in content and function should be expressed similarly.

Here's how it works.

If you begin making a list with adjectives, as Ben did, you enter a contract with the reader to complete your list in like fashion. If you switch to a different part of speech somewhere in your list, you break the contract and jar the reader. The point is to be consistent. Create an expectation in the reader's mind, and then meet that expectation. It's a nice trick. It makes the reader think that you know what you're doing, that you're in the driver's seat, that you're in control.

Get the idea? Here's a sentence with non-parallel construction: "She is capable, experienced, and often works late at night."

Doesn't sound right, does it? In this sentence the writer breaks the contract with the reader by shifting from a series of adjectives, "capable" and "experienced," to a verb phrase, "often works late at night."

The result is a break in rhythm, a loss of momentum. To honor the contract, the writer should have written, "She is capable, experienced, and dedicated"--or "talented" or "brilliant" or whatever adjective came to mind, as long as it was another adjective.

If on the other hand the writer was partial to the verb phrase, liked the sound of it and didn't want to give it up, the sentence could have been rewritten this way: "A capable and dedicated employee, she often works until late at night."

Either way, the writer avoids one of the most common errors in business writing, the sentence is vastly improved, and the reader doesn't feel cheated.

Here's another example: "The volume of business depends on an institution's delivery method, production time, and whether or not it is open or closed."

Can you hear where the sentence violates parallel construction and loses its momentum? To eliminate the breach in contract, the series should be concluded as it was begun--with a third noun phrase, like this: "delivery method, production time, and hours of operation."

Remember: The point is to be consistent.

Now, here's one for you to correct on your own: "Either finish the project on time or I think you need to ask me for help."

Can you hear how the unnecessary phrase breaks the momentum of the sentence?

Exercise on parallel structure

First published by the Minneapolis Star Tribune: April 21, 1995

Use parallel structure for emphasis, power

by Stephen Wilbers

What do Oscar Wilde, Samuel Johnson, and Marcus Tullius Cicero have in common?

Give up? Here's a hint.

The 19th-century Irish poet, novelist, and playwright Oscar Wilde once said, "The difference between journalism and literature is that journalism is unreadable and literature is not read."

The 18th-century English lexicographer and author Samuel Johnson once told an aspiring writer, "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."

And the 1st-century B.C. Roman statesman and orator Marcus Tullius Cicero once declared, "Ask not what your country can do for you, but rather what you can do for your country."

(Sound familiar? President John F. Kennedy liked that line so much he used it in his 1961 inaugural address.)

Have you guessed what they have in common? In addition to being famous dead white male authors, all three understood the power of parallel structure.

Here's how it works.

Parallel structure requires that the elements of a sentence that are alike in meaning or function be alike in construction. For example, if you begin the first phrase in a series with a preposition, you must begin every phrase in that series with a preposition (as in "government of the people, by the people, and for the people"). The point is to be consistent. Create an expectation in the reader's mind, then meet that expectation.

Here's another example: "We need to improve flexibility, consistency, and efficiency."

Think of parallel structure as a contract with your reader. When you establish a pattern, stay with it. (In the example above, the pattern is noun, noun, and noun.) When you honor your contract, your writing takes on a rhythm and symmetry that give it emphasis and power.

On the other hand, when you switch to a different part of speech, you break your contract and jar your reader. (A breach of this kind is called faulty parallelism, which in Minnesota is an indictable felony, punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $100,000 fine, or both.)

Here are some examples of faulty parallelism:

"She was healthy, wealthy, and an athlete."

"Although we have guidelines on how to conduct an audit, they are inconsistent, incomplete, and not reliable."

"My primary responsibilities are to manage staff, to create a new database, and reorganizing the office."

"I want to congratulate both the author and editor."

Can you hear where the cadence in each sentence is disrupted and the contract broken?

To correct faulty parallelism, maintain your pattern. Use the same parts of speech (such as articles, verbs, or nouns) or the same constructions (such as prepositional phrases) consistently.

Take special care with lists, such as this one:

We rated our branch operations according to these criteria:

1.  Delayed collection efforts

2.  Incomplete provider contract files

3.  Formalized petty cash policy does not exist

4.  Returned subscriber checks.

Can you correct the error?

In contrast to the jarring effect of these broken contracts, consider the intensity created by Abraham Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address when he declared, "But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate--we cannot consecrate--we cannot hallow--this ground."

Similarly, consider the power generated by Martin Luther King, Jr., when he punctuated his famous speech with, "I have a dream that one day . . . I have a dream that one day . . ."

Finally, consider the determination conveyed by JFK in his inaugural address when he proclaimed, "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."

Sounds good to me.

Exercise on parallel structure

First published by the Minneapolis Star Tribune: September 13, 1996

The beauty and utility of language are connected

by Stephen Wilbers

I was on a plane en route to Atlanta, reading a story in the newspaper about the Minnesota State Fair, when I came across this passage:

"Fairs come at the twilight of the year, when the harvest is in and the year's work is almost done, when the land prepares for its long winter sleep. The final event of the departing summer, the Minnesota State Fair marks a time of celebration, a time of optimism and satisfaction with a job well done. Like a warm, soft Minnesota night, it is a time of rest and play and renewal, a time for learning and contemplation and wonder, a time for dreaming."

With those words, Karal Ann Marling, an American Studies professor and author of Blue Ribbon: A Social and Pictorial History of the Minnesota State Fair, did more than describe the significance of the fair. She also captured the wistful mood of a passing season.

How did she do it? Why was I so taken with the passage?

At first I thought it was her rich, evocative language. But when I read the passage a second time, I realized it was more than that: It also was the sound of her language.

It was the rhythm and soft cadence of her sentences. It was the gentle refrain of phrases punctuated by repetitions of "when" and "a time." First two, then two, then three. And within the last sentence a kind of counterpoint: first three, then three, then one.

My reason for traveling to Atlanta was to present a writing workshop to the auditing division of a large corporation. I would be working with a group of auditors to help them write their audit reports more effectively. I would be concentrating on the basics: how to organize and format material for clarity and emphasis, how to eliminate unnecessary words, how to support important points with specific detail, and how to avoid common errors.

I would be working, in other words, with language in a purely utilitarian fashion--or so I thought.

What I had not anticipated, however, was the eagerness and intensity of the auditors. They asked me questions about using verbs rather than nouns to write in a more animated style. They asked me when to use the first person for emphasis and when not to. They wanted to discuss tone and voice and personality in writing.

During a break I commented on the group's enthusiasm to one of the workshop participants.

"We're a hand-picked group," she explained. "Most of us will spend about two or three years traveling around the country doing audits, but we won't be in these positions for long.

"This division is our company's training ground for future executives. That's why we're so interested in what you have to say about writing. We want to learn anything you can teach us to help make us more successful in our future positions."

Mystery solved. Here, I thought, was the antithesis of the stereotypical, numbers-are-the-only-thing-that-really-counts technical writer. Here was a group of future executives who understood the importance of developing and refining their communication skills.

They wanted to know why a sentence such as "Establishing accounting procedures is one thing; following them is another" sounded better than "Establishing accounting procedures is one thing, but compliance has not been consistently achieved." They wanted to know why balanced sentences had special effect.

The auditors in Atlanta knew something important. They knew if they could write not only with clarity, but also with style and personality – even elegance and grace – their futures were bright.

Exercise on parallel structure


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