(Photo by Ian Chen on Unsplash)
By Sandy Wiegand, Copyeditor and Writer at Joining Vision and Action
In my previous blog on writing techniques, I focused on the use of active voice to improve sentence flow. This week—try to contain yourself—I discuss parallel construction.
Using parallel construction helps your writing flow smoothly and makes it more likely that readers, including potential funders, will keep reading. I like this explanation from The Evergreen (State College) Writing Center:
Parallel structure “increase(s) the readability of your writing by creating word patterns readers can follow easily.”
One common place where the need for parallel construction is highlighted is in bullet points. The Associated Press offers the following advice on parallel construction in lists—which, not coincidentally, is in the format of a list that uses parallel construction:
- Start with the same part of speech for each item (in this example, a verb).
- Use the same voice (active or passive) for each item.
- Use the same verb tense for each item.
- Use the same sentence type (statement, question, exclamation) for each item.
- Use just a phrase for each item, if desired.
When you see (or write) a bulleted list, you can consider it a hint to check the list for parallel construction. Below is an example. Look for a lack of parallel construction, and see if you can identify the problem(s):
JVA makes the following recommendations:
- Advocate for an integrated and holistic model of care.
- Accessibility to nutrition education and healthy food options.
- Promote creation of community-based support groups.
- Can you ensure reliable funding to keep services affordable?
- Endorse testimonials as reliable sources of information.
Did you find two bulleted items that just didn’t quite sound the same as the others?
If you apply the Associated Press guidance from above, you’ll note that while three of the sentences begin with an imperative verb (telling you to do something), one begins with a noun: Accessibility to nutrition education and healthy food options. Furthermore, unlike all of the other items, that one isn’t a complete sentence. Another bulleted item—Can you ensure reliable funding to keep services affordable?—does not begin with an imperative verb like the others; it begins with an auxiliary (“helping”) verb. Also, more obviously, it’s a question, while three of the five bulleted items are statements (and the other, as noted, is a fragment).
Of course, not all lists are bulleted; many just appear within running text. If you see a sentence with a list, another trick to test for parallel construction, suggested by Grammarly.com, is to divide it into separate sentences for each element that should be parallel, and see if it makes sense. Check out the following:
Example 1: The clinic houses a gym, a diabetes clinic and a health navigator office.
Parallel construction test: The clinic houses a gym. The clinic houses a diabetes clinic. The clinic houses a health navigator office.
Conclusion: All three sentences make sense. The original sentence has parallel construction.
Example 2: Primary board functions include setting policy, ensuring resources exist and to train new board members.
Parallel construction test: Primary board functions include setting policy. Primary board functions include ensuring resources exist. Primary board functions include to train new board members.
Conclusion: The final sentence isn’t quite right: “Primary board functions include to train new board members.”
Wondering why Example 2 sounds wrong? Look again at the original: Primary board functions include setting policy, ensuring resources exist and to train new board members. “Setting,” “ensuring” and “to train” are all verbs—but “to train” is a different verb form than the others. Change “to train” to “training,” and we’re back on track.
For more insight into parallel construction, and for more examples, check out the following sources:
- The Purdue University Online Writing Lab includes a broader set of examples, as well as some proofreading strategies.
- Grammar Bytes (Click on Parallel Structure under the main heading) has several interactive tests/exercises to help you practice your new skills.