Word Wise: Parallelism Gives Your Writing a Left Edge

grocery-list parallelismParallelism. The word itself sports a pair of rails, conjuring images of things perfectly aligned. Rows of corn. Ribs of corduroy. Rings of latitude. When you write and speak, you align words. You do this naturally. You dash off to the store saying, “I’m going to get pistachios, tuna, and champagne.” You don’t think, I’m aligning a series of nouns. The nouns line themselves up. Words seek their own kind, says Sheridan Baker, “noun to noun, adjective to adjective, infinitive to infinitive” (The Practical Stylist, 1998).

If only words sought their own kind with more gusto. It surprises me how often I come across near misses. For example, the author bio on the back of a book about using voicemail effectively includes this clunker:

“Sheldon has worked for corporations, associations, and in leadership roles for nonprofit organizations.”

If Sheldon [false name] had channeled his inner shopper while writing, for a split second his thoughts would have run like this: I’m going to pick up some corporations, some associations, and some nonprofits. His thoughts would have run like this because a grocery list, by definition a set of nouns, is a model of parallelness. The “grocery list” hidden in Sheldon’s original statement looks like this:

corporations
associations
nonprofit organizations

Thinking like a shopper, Sheldon would have written something parallel, like this:

“Sheldon has worked for corporations, associations, and nonprofit organizations. He has shown leadership in…”

If you can make a grocery list, you can master parallelism.

And you do want to master parallelism. Why? Claire Kehrwald Cook tells us that parallelism “points up the structure of the sentence, showing readers what goes with what and keeping them on the right track” (Line by Line: How to Edit Your Own Writing, 1985). Katy Carlson cites studies showing that parallel language is “easier to process” (Parallelism and Prosody in the Processing of Ellipsis Sentences, 2002). Bryan A. Garner goes deeper, saying that parallelism “helps satisfy every reader’s innate craving for order and rhythm” (Garner’s Modern American Usage, 2009). Your own reading experience, no doubt, backs up all these claims.

A grocery-list mindset brings parallelism to more than your sentences. I’ll illustrate with an example from an instruction guide that I edited for a high-tech company. In the first draft, the main sections’ headings read something like this:

How to Update the Kit
Firmware Download
Install the Operating System
Connecting to the Cloud
Analytics ­­

In ultraslow motion, here’s what I do in a case like this. First, I gather the headings into a mental grocery list. Not that I’d want to eat a firmware download. Nor could I run to the store and grab a “how to update the kit” off the shelf. Unlike pistachios, tuna, and champagne, these headings aren’t even nouns. So why do I still think in terms of a grocery list in this case? For one reason: the items are arranged vertically. Stacked, not scattered.

And, since it’s my mental fridge door, the list is left-aligned.

Why? Because when list items comprise multiple words, I want to focus on the first words. Because parallelism requires similar beginnings.

The beauty of an edge is that you can run your finger down it. Try it. Run your finger down the left edge of those headings. Your finger draws your eye to the words bolded here:

How to Update the Kit
Firmware Download
Install the Operating System
Connecting to the Cloud
Analytics ­­

I do this exercise so that I can ask myself—and quickly answer—this question: how grammatically similar are these left-edge words? In this case, not similar at all. Sometimes that’s okay; dissimilarity doesn’t, in itself, call for change. But since I know that all these sections of the instruction guide describe the same type of content (tasks), I know that these headings will make more sense if they start with the same type of word. These dissimilarities cry out for change.

The simple act of scanning that left edge tells me almost everything I need to know to make the headings parallel. At this point—the point of noticing dissimilarity—the words in these headings “seek their own kind.” Consistent verb forms suggest themselves. Before my eyes, the headings take new shapes. Next thing I know, I’m looking at this:

Download the Firmware
Install the Operating System
Update the Kit
Connect to the Cloud
Perform Analytics ­­

Run your finger down that left edge. Verb, verb, verb, verb, verb.

You can apply the grocery-list technique (if you prefer, call it the “left-aligned vertical list” technique) within paragraphs, too. Moving from the high tech to the sublime, I borrow now from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who famously said,

Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.

I can’t help wondering what Dr. King wrote these words on. He may have drafted this paragraph in a journal. He may have drafted it on the back of a napkin. He may have drafted it on his palm. He may have drafted it … you get the idea. It wouldn’t surprise me to discover that the esteemed orator sketched out this series of sentences on a skinny pad stuck to his fridge. I imagine him running his finger down the left edge as he rehearsed.

Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.

Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley…

Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice…

Now is the time to make justice a reality…

cornfieldWant to master parallelism? Write—or, rather, edit—in grocery-list mode. Whenever you come to two or more words, phrases, clauses, sentences, paragraphs, or section headings that convey similar content, picture those items as a left-aligned vertical list. Run your finger down the edge. Does it look like this?

rows of corn
ribs of corduroy
rings of latitude

Marcia Riefer Johnston

Marcia has run a tech-writing business for ... a long time. The author of "Word Up! How to Write Powerful Sentences and Paragraphs (And Everything You Build from Them)," she taught tech writing in the Engineering School at Cornell University and studied literature and creative writing in the Syracuse University Masters program. For more, see howtowriteeverything.com.

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