Grammar 11 min read

What is Parallelism in Writing?

Main Parallelism Takeaways:

  • Parallelism is a literary device that writers use to craft sentences or paragraphs with similar grammatical structures.
  • This stylistic technique can enhance readability and add balance, flow, and rhythm to all writing types.
  • Parallel construction is found in common expressions such as “easy come, easy go” and “a penny saved is a penny earned.
  • Reading aloud helps identify parallel structure.
  • A parallel structure is essential when using coordinating or correlative conjunctions.
  • Similar parts of speech or words with similar sounds may also be employed to create a parallel structure.
  • Parallel construction that’s focused on oppositional relationships is known as an antithesis.

Whether you want to create an ear-pleasing political speech or a more readable piece of fiction, parallelism may be the technique you need. Learn more about this deliberate use of repetition in our handy guide to parallel structure in prose and poetry.

What is a Parallelism in Writing?

Parallel construction is a technique in which a writer uses elements with similar grammatical structures to craft sentences or paragraphs. This literary device uses comparable or identical components in sound, meaning, construction, or meter to create balance and flow. Each component also represents a related topic or idea.

As a more specific answer to this question, parallelism, singular, cannot exist. The word itself implies repetition. Meanwhile, parallelisms, plural, are repeated similarities

Parallelism is a literary device wherein a writer uses elements with a similar grammatical structure to craft a sentence or paragraph.
Parallelism is a literary device wherein a writer uses elements with a similar grammatical structure to craft a sentence or paragraph.

Going With the Flow Using Parallel Structure

Now that we know what it is, the better question may be what is a parallel structure used for and why it is useful. The answer is simple. Through parallel construction, you can add balance and flow to almost any type of writing, whether formal or informal. It can create a sense of rhythm, making prose (or poetry) pleasing to the eye and the ear.

Readability and Other Benefits of Parallel Structure

Another benefit of parallel construction is that it creates word patterns that are easy for a reader to follow. This can enhance readability and add authority to your writing. Thus, it is useful in writing speeches or other prose intended to be read aloud.

What is an Example of Parallelism?

Because the technique can be useful, parallelism is common. You’ll find parallel construction in everyday expressions such as “Easy come, easy go” and “Like father, like son.”

Other familiar examples of parallel structure include:

  • “I came, I saw, I conquered.” (Julius Caesar)
  • One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” (Neil Armstrong)
  • What you see is what you get.
  • A penny saved is a penny earned.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s iconic I Have a Dream speech is another fantastic example of an effective parallel structure. It could be the most well-known example of this technique out there.

Examples in Poetry

Parallel structure is an oft-used poetic as well, and examples abound in poems. One classic example is William Blake’s The Tyger, which employs repetition effectively, including book-ended first and final stanzas.

Furthermore, other parallelisms in The Tyger include repetition of the word “what,” repetition of questions, and repetition of certain vowel sounds.

For other poems that include examples of parallel structure, try reading:

Parallelism. First image panel shows two men talking, the curly-haired guys is saying ,
INK Parallelism Infographic

Parallel Structure: Stylistic Choice or Writing Essential?

That leads us to another question: Is parallel structure a stylistic choice or an essential grammatical tool?

The answer is both. Creating a parallel structure could be a stylistic choice. But, that’s not always the case. Sometimes, it’s vital for grammatical correctness.

Situations When Parallel Structure is Necessary

In the following grammatical situations, you should always use parallel structure.

With Coordinating Conjunctions

If you use coordinating conjunction such as and, but, or, for, and so to connect multiple phrases or clauses, use parallel structure.

Dominick taught his son how to bake and gardening skills.
Correct: Dominick taught his son how to bake and garden.

With Correlative Conjunctions

If you’re linking two phrases or clauses with correlative conjunctions, such as if…then or either…or, use parallel structure.

I want either a cupcake or to get ice cream.
Correct: I want to get either a cupcake or ice cream.

With Comparison Words

If you’re joining two clauses with a comparison word, such as than or as, you should use parallel structure.

I would rather pay for my education upfront than a loan.
I would rather pay for my education upfront than take out a loan.

When Comparing Listed Items

When listing items, it’s essential to maintain parallel structure throughout the list.

I enjoy reading, writing, and to do math.
I enjoy reading, writing, and math.

Although parallel construction is essential to proper grammar in the examples above, the technique can be used to enhance style too. Fiction writers also use this literary device to build an atmosphere and to help create voice.

Creating Parallel Structure

Creating a parallel structure also involves repeating a chosen grammatical element within a sentence or paragraph. Each repeated element should contain a related topic or idea.

Essentially, repetition is your friend. But what does that mean when you put pen to paper?

Here are several easy ways to create a parallel structure in your writing.

Match Parts of Speech

If you’re comparing multiple items, whether in list form or through conjunctions, make sure each item adheres to the same grammatical structure. In other words, match the parts of speech.

If one item you’re comparing is a noun, then all items you’re comparing should be nouns. If one item is a present tense verb, all items should be present tense verbs.

Not Parallel: My sister Mary thinks she’s an expert in makeup, motorcycles, and how to paint with watercolors.
Parallel: My sister Mary thinks she’s an expert in makeup, motorcycles, and watercolor painting.

You may notice that “watercolor painting” is still slightly different from “makeup” and “motorcycles” since it includes a descriptor. Since all the items in this comparison are nouns or noun phrases, this sentence is still parallel. The descriptor adds additional interest to the sentence.

Start Sentences with Similar Constructs

Parallel construction doesn’t solely exist within a sentence. It can occur in a paragraph (or even an entire short document). So, if you want to create emphasis and rhythm in a paragraph, consider starting several consecutive sentences with the same construct.

Do you want to know what I want? I want a world where all people are treated equally. I want a world where everyone can feel safe. I want a world where we can all play together nicely.

Although this technique can be useful to create rhythm and emphasis, it should be used sparingly. In general, good writing means varying the construction of sentence beginnings as well as their overall length.

Note: This same technique may also be used to begin several paragraphs, creating a parallel structure on a larger scale.

Keep Topics Related

As the old saying goes, don’t compare apples to oranges (even though yes, they’re both fruit). In other words, create a parallel structure by sticking to topics that are related in some way. They may belong to the same class of items, reference related ideas, or explore similar themes.

Not Parallel: Sandra loved Swiss, Gouda, cheddar, and hot dogs.
Parallel: Sandra loved Swiss, Gouda, cheddar, and brie.

Flip The Script

Parallel construction doesn’t always have to revolve around comparisons of similar things. It can also focus on oppositional relationships. This is known as an antithesis.

Oppositional relationships may include pairs such as:

  • love/hate
  • like/dislike
  • is/isn’t
  • will/won’t
I love when my puppy cuddles up on the couch with me, but I hate when she barks at the neighbors.

Although these are oppositional thoughts, the construct is still similar (love when parallels hate when), forming an effective parallel structure.

Use Sound to Create Parallel Structure

Sound and meter can be useful tools when creating a parallel structure. Choose words with similar consonant or vowel sounds to explore a different aspect of this technique.

When it comes to dogs, she likes mastiffs, Manchester terriers, and mutts.

Meter—Not Only For Poetry

One way to create or enhance parallel construction between or within sentences is to match the meter. Meter is defined as the rhythmic structure of a line. It consists of the number of syllables in a line, combined with the emphasis on those syllables.

Although the meter is traditionally associated with poetry, it can also be used effectively in prose. You can incorporate meter into your parallel constructs by including phrases or sentences with identical syllable counts and a similar emphasis.

We went to the ocean to see the water. We went to the mountain to see the color.

Notice how these two sentences not only have the same syllable count, but also similar emphasis on those syllables when read aloud.

How do you Identify Parallelism?

There are several simple ways to identify parallel structure in any piece of writing. Since it’s typically used in comparisons, look for similarities in structure, sound, and topics. Reading aloud can also help reveal patterns in meter, emphasis, and sound.

In identifying parallel structure, it may also be helpful to look for:

  • Lists
  • Conjunctions such as but, and, for, and so
  • Comparison words such as than and as
  • Sentences or paragraphs with similar beginnings or lengths
  • Opposites

But what happens when you find parallelism and it’s faulty?

Faulty Parallelism

Unfortunately, the parallel structure is easy to get wrong. Fortunately, when it goes wrong, it’s easy to troubleshoot and fix.

Troubleshooting Parallel Structure Issues

If you aren’t sure you’ve effectively created a parallel structure, you can troubleshoot it by creating a list of bullet points. Begin by writing out the section of your sentence that the bullet points pertain to. Then, each bullet point should represent one item or phrase in your sentence.

A Deeper Dive

Let’s look at an example.

The new cash registers were designed to ensure accuracy, speed up transactions, and better records.

Your list would then look like this:

The new cash registers…

  • ensure accuracy
  • speed up transactions
  • better records

It’s easy to see where the sentence has gone wrong. Whereas “promote accuracy” and “speed up transactions” both start with verbs, “better records” starts with an adjective. It’s not parallel at all.

Making the Correction

You can rewrite the sentence to be parallel by amending the phrase “better records,” to begin with, a verb, matching the other two phrases. Let’s give it a try.

The new cash registers were designed to ensure accuracy, speed up transactions, and promote better record-keeping.

Your bulleted list would now look like this:

The new cash registers…

  • ensure accuracy
  • speed up transactions
  • promote better record-keeping

The list now reflects an effective parallel structure since all three items begin with a verb.

Choices, Choices, Choices

Sometimes, there’s more than one way to fix a faulty parallel structure. Take this example.

John likes playing board games, solving puzzles, and to cook.
John likes playing board games, solving puzzles, and cooking.
John likes to play board games, solve puzzles, and cook.

In this example (and in most faulty parallel structures), there are two ways to correct the error. You just need to make sure all components match up.

What’s the Difference Between Parallelism and Repetition

Parallelism and repetition are both stylistic devices used in writing. Some writers view these two as the same, but they are not. In fact, there’s a distinct difference between parallelism and repetition — their area of focus.

Parallelism focuses on syntax, whereas repetition focuses more on semantics. See below examples:

(Parallelism) Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country. ~ John F. Kennedy
(Repetition) It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness. ~ Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

As the name suggests, repetition involves repeating the same word, phrase, or sentence in writing. It’s commonly used in poetry and oratorical speeches to add emphasis or make statements more powerful.

Meanwhile, parallelism uses components that are grammatically the same, or phrases that are similar in meaning, sound, or construction. You can create parallelism by using other devices like repetition, epistrophe, or antithesis, to name a few.

Parallelism’s primary goal is to join similar concepts or place opposing ideas side by side to emphasize their differences.

This, That, and the Other Thing: Final Words on Parallelism

Whether you’re writing a novel, poem, or thesis, parallelism is an excellent tool for adding balance, creating rhythm, and effectively conveying your message. By learning this simple stylistic technique, you can make your writing more readable and appealing, no matter what your ultimate objective is.

Quick Parallelism Grammar Quiz

Parallelism Question #1

Which sentence(s) is NOT correct.
Correct! Oops! That's incorrect.

The answer is D. Parallel structures create a word pattern that's easy to read.

Parallel Structure Question #2

Which sentence(s) is NOT correct.
Correct! Oops! That's incorrect.

The answer is B. One way to use a parallel structure is to compare a list of items.

Parallelism Question #3

Is this sentence a parallel structure? The crowd outside cheered, laughed, and cried.
Correct! Oops! That's incorrect.

The answer is YES. Comparing a list of items is one way to use parallel construction.

Parallel Structure Question #4

Is this sentence a parallel structure? I need to go to work.
Correct! Oops! That's incorrect.

The answer is NO. The sentence lacks similar grammatical structures necessary to create a pattern.

Parallelism Question #5

In which grammatical situations can you use parallel structures?
Correct! Oops! That's incorrect.

The answer is D. You can use parallel structure in all of these grammatical situations.

Parallelism Question #6

Which of the sentences maintains a parallel structure?
Correct! Oops! That's incorrect.

The answer is B. One way to use a parallel structure is to compare a list of items.

Read More: A or An: How to use Indefinite Articles

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Pam Weber

Pam is an expert grammarian with years of experience teaching English, Writing and ESL Grammar courses at the university level. She is enamored with all things language and fascinated with how we use words to shape our world.

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