Thursday 13 March 2008

On parallelism

A correspondent writes to say that he has had his writing criticised by his boss for 'faulty parallelism' and he wonders what it is.

It's a somewhat vague term, I have to say, but I imagine what the boss is concerned about is the kind of thing which Fowler called 'parallel-sentence dangers', and which has thus attracted especial attention from stylists over the years. Any piece of discourse can be said to show structural parallelism (as it's usually called) if it uses the same construction more than once in succession. There's a discussion of it in The Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language (section 19.7) and also at various places in my Making Sense of Grammar (see the index).

Parallelism is most obvious at sentence level (In the north it will be sunny. In the south it will be wet.). Here are two famous examples:

I came. I saw. I conquered.
One Ring to rule them all. One Ring to find them.

But it is also to be found within the sentence (e.g. Like father, like son), where often the parallelism is signalled by particular words (e.g. not only ... but also) or by a distinctive string (I left my new and fashionable coat in an old and unfashionable cafe).

Parallelism goes wrong when someone attempts to introduce a parallel construction, but doesn't quite make it. Here are some examples:

I want a new car and to sell my old one.
The paper described both the London marathon and New York.
We like to swim in the sea and surfing the waves.
The critics have been more critical, nasty, and angrier than I have noticed before.
The weather in Spain is drier than Portugal.
The answer is either right or an error.

Notice that most cases involve comparisons or lists. The easiest solution, accordingly, is to check that each element has the same structure.

I want
a new car
to sell my old one.

better rewritten as:

I want
to buy a new car
to sell my old one.

Developing an ear which is sensitive to unbalanced structures is part of the process of acquiring a mature style. I always find that reading a sentence aloud can help, as genuine structural parallelism is usually reinforced by a balanced rhythmical structure.


  1. Interesting stuff here. I've been thinking about a sort of faulty parallelism in constructions involving "same" as an adjective. I wonder if you can tell me whether you think such "parallelism" as follows is really faulty (as I suspect). Suppose I said:

    "I went to France for the same reason as you".

    I take it that this is ok, that the 'parallelism' is handled properly. Both people went to France (this is entailed by the sentence, I think) and both went for the same reason. One doesn't need to write: "...for the same reason AS YOU WENT TO FRANCE", since "" can work in the above way, with the verb after "you" being elipted.

    BUt now suppose I had said this instead:

    "I went to France for the same reason as you went to Spain."

    Is this one ok? TO my ear, it sounds a bit faulty in the way some of your examples above sounded uneven and faulty. We are no longer comparing the reasons two people went to the same place (France). The pairing has been disrupted so that we get the first person going to one place and the second to another? Is the "" construction being strectched too much here? Does the second sentence sound like an example of faulty parallelism to you?

    I looked the "same" up in the OED (Oxford ENglish Dictionary) and could not find ONE single example that makes the "" work in the way it is being made to work in the second example above. The parallelism is always...well "parallel"! One example was:

    "Entering college at the SAME age AS Fletcher had entered (six years earlier)."

    Another example was:

    "...being mounted in the SAME manner as THEY"

    In both the parallelism seems right. Both halves of the comparison are going in the right direction, as it were. But in my second "same" example above, they seem to be pulling in different directions. What would you say about all this? I'm dying to know!

  2. I don't see any structural parallelism in your first example. A correspondence between two pronouns isn't enough, otherwise there would be parallels all over the place. You have to constrain the notion, if it is to be useful.

    Your second example is fine, as there is a clear structural parallel between the two. I don't see anything faulty in this, as the syntax is balanced. This is structural parallelism, remember, not semantic parallelism of the type you seem to have in mind. It's not relevant that the people are going to the same or different places.

  3. so you mean that if anything "I went to France for the same reason as you" is the faulty sentence, and that "I went to France for the same reason as you went to Spain" is ok?

    Or do you mean that "I went to France for the same reason as you" is fine as a sentence but does not display the parallelism you were talking about?

  4. re the post above (concerning the same): I read somewhere (in a usage manual, I think) that "same" should always be followed by "as" rather than "that". I wonder whether you think that's a silly prescriptive rule or one worth following (for some reason or other). Are both of the following good, or is one better than the other:

    Question: "what sort of critic is he?

    (Ans:1) He is the same sort of critic THAT you seem to be

    (Ans:2) He is the same sort of critic AS you seem to be

    I can't work out why the manual denouned "same...that" in sentences like (Ans:1). BUt maybe there's something I'm missing. Maybe there is a good reason why one should write (Ans:2)....?

  5. Please read again the first sentence of the first paragraph of my previous post.

  6. And in relation to the later post: both as and that can be used as conjunctions in clausal comparison. As is especially common after at the same time... and in the same way.... It can also be followed by noun phrases, which makes it much more frequent than constructions using that. On the other hand, that is more common in other collocations apart from time and way, according to Pam Peters in her Cambridge Guide to English Usage. Some pundits argue for a difference in formality here, but I don't feel it.

    This is going off topic. Please keep contributions focused on a single thread, or searching will become increasingly difficult.