Draw parallel lines. Then cut across them.
Writers shape up their writing by paying attention to parallel structures in their words, phrases, and sentences. "If two or more ideas are parallel," writes Diana Hacker, "they are easier to grasp when expressed in parallel grammatical form. Single words should be balanced with single words, phrases with phrases, clauses with clauses."
The effect is most obvious in the spoken words of great orators, such as Martin Luther King:
So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania! Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado!
"Use parallels wherever you can," wrote Sheridan Baker in 1962. Citing passages from Hemingway and Freud, he argued "that equivalent thoughts demand parallel constructions."
Just after reading Baker, I stumbled upon an essay by one of my favorite English authors, G.K. Chesterton, who wrote detective stories and literary essays early in the 20th Century. His more mannered style highlights the parallel structures in sentences and paragraphs:
With my stick and my knife, my chalks and my brown paper, I went out on to the great downs.
That sentence strides across the page on the legs of two parallel constructions: the fourfold repetition of 'my,' and the pair of pairs connected by 'and.'
[Old poets] preferred writing about great men to writing about great hills; but they sat on the great hills to write it. They gave out much less about Nature, but they drank in, perhaps, much more.
Notice not only how 'writing about great men' parallels 'writing about great hills,' but also how 'much less' is balanced by 'much more.'
The late Neil Postman once argued that problems of society could not be solved by information alone. He shaped his arguments around a set of parallel propositions:
If there are people starving in the world -- and there are -- it is not caused by insufficient information. If crime is rampant in the streets, it is not caused by insufficient information. If children are abused and wives are battered, that has nothing to do with insufficient information. If our schools are not working and democratic principles are losing their force, that too has nothing to do with insufficient information. If we are plagued by such problems, it is because something else is missing.
By repeating those "If" clauses -- by ending four consecutive sentences with 'insufficient information,' -- Postman creates a drumbeat of language, a drum-line of persuasion.
Suddenly I began seeing parallels everywhere. Here is a passage from "The Plot Against America," a recent novel by Philip Roth. In one of his trademark long sentences, Roth describes Jewish-American working-class life in the 1940s:
The men worked fifty, sixty, even seventy or more hours a week; the women worked all the time, with little assistance from labor-saving devices, washing laundry, ironing shirts, mending socks, turning collars, sewing on buttons, mothproofing woolens, polishing furniture, sweeping and washing floors, washing windows, cleaning sinks, tubs, toilets, and stoves, vacuuming rugs, nursing the sick, shopping for food, cooking meals, feeding relatives, tidying closets and drawers, overseeing paint jobs and household repairs, arranging for religious observances, paying bills and keeping the family's books while simultaneously attending to their children's health, clothing, cleanliness, schooling, nutrition, conduct, birthdays, discipline, and morale.
In this dazzling inventory of work, I count 19 parallel phrases, all building upon 'washing laundry.' What makes it sing, though, is the occasional variation from the pattern, such as the phrase 'cleaning sinks, tubs, toilets, and stoves.' The first clause offers a similar example. Roth could have written: "The men worked fifty, sixty, seventy hours a week," a perfectly parallel string of adjectives. Instead, he gives us "even seventy or more." By breaking the pattern, he gives even more emphasis to the final element.
Such intentional violation of parallels also adds power to the conclusion of Dr. King’s speech:
Let freedom ring from the curvaceous peaks of California! [That follows the pattern.]
But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia!
Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee!
Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.
When King points the compass of freedom toward the segregationist South, he alters the pattern. Generalized American topography is replaced by specific locations associated with racial injustice: Stone Mountain and Lookout Mountain. The final variation covers not just mighty mountains but every inch of Mississippi.
All writers will fail, on occasion, to take advantage of parallel structures. The result for the reader can be the equivalent of driving over a pothole on a freeway. It can deliver quite a jolt.
What if the creators of Superman told us that the Man of Steel stood for truth, justice, and doing lots of American things? What if St. Paul taught us that the three great virtues were faith, hope, and committing ourselves to charitable work? What if Abraham Lincoln had written about a government of the people, by the people, and for the entire nation, including the red and blue states? These violations of parallelism should remind us of the sturdy symmetry of the original versions.
1. Examine several of your recent stories with parallelism in mind. Look for examples in which you used parallel structures to shape your work. Can you find some potholes -- some unparallel phrases or sentences -- that jar the reader?
2. With this new tool in mind, begin to notice parallel language in novels, in creative nonfiction, in journalism. When you find a passage, underline the parallel structures with a pencil. Discuss the effect of parallelism on the reader. Begin with the passage above from Philip Roth.
3. Just for fun, take parallel slogans or sayings and rewrite the last element. Such as: John, Paul, George, and that drummer who wears the rings.
4. By fiddling with parallel structures, you might discover that an occasional violation of parallelism can lend special emphasis or a humorous imbalance to a sentence.