Sunday, August 23, 2009

Grammatical parallelism, parallel structure, parallel construction, parallel form (3)

Grammatical parallelism is the use of equivalent syntax to array equivalent ideas. Grammatical parallelism is also known as parallel structure, parallel construction, and parallel form.

In two previous posts (1, 2), we discussed examples of parallelism; one example involved a series of nouns separated by the conjunction and (in some cases, implied). The other example involved two series of clauses, each clause beginning with “we shall fight.” The clauses in each series were separated by commas, with no conjunctions (asyndeton).

Today we discuss another example of parallelism. It is from an August 14, 2009 article headlined "Blindsided."

An example of parallelism

The example is a series of three consecutive sentences. Each sentence is a rhetorical question about the reader’s future:

“Will you lose the house? Will your kids go to college? Will your spouse get fed up with you and kick you out?”

The writer clearly intended these three sentences to be parallel. But he executed carelessly:

The first sentence asks whether a negative outcome (you lose the house) will occur.

The second sentence asks whether a positive outcome (your kids go to college) will occur.

The third sentence asks whether a negative outcome (your spouse kicks you out) will occur.

The typical reader will pause after the second sentence. The reader silently asks himself, “Where’s he going with this? First he asks whether something catastrophic will happen and then he asks whether something positive and normal will happen.”

If the reader doesn’t give up and stop reading at this point, he continues to the third sentence and probably figures out that the writer made an error in parallelism:

“Oh, I see. The writer meant each of the three sentences to speculate whether a specific catastrophe will happen. But in the middle sentence, he accidentally reversed the logic; instead of asking whether a catastrophe will happen, he asked whether something normal and good will happen. He must have meant to ask if the normal and good thing will fail to happen.”

At this point, the reader knows that the writer is careless with his syntax (or is generally careful but is having a bad day). The reader may stop reading. If he doesn’t, he will very likely stop three paragraphs later, when he encounters an egregious mixed metaphor. And there is another egregious mixed metaphor eight paragraphs after that one.*

The Takeaway: Check your parallel constructions to make sure they are truly parallel. Remember, when you publish what you write, you are implicitly asking the reader for his continued voluntary attention. Every time you use syntax carelessly, the intelligent reader (consciously or unconsciously) assigns you a demerit. If the demerits keep accumulating, eventually he will stop reading. He may even decide to avoid your writing altogether in the future.

*I discussed these two mixed metaphors in an earlier post.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this clarification and example on paralleled writing.

    Dawn Herring
    JournalWriter Freelance
    Be Refreshed!
    (journalwriter7 on twitter)