backParallel structures keep your readers on track

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By Lynne Laracy

We want readers to travel quickly and smoothly through our documents. We also want them to easily make connections between ideas.

That’s where a parallel structure comes in. It means using the same grammatical form in a pair or series of related words, phrases or clauses. It matches nouns with nouns and verbs with verbs, ensuring that the verbs have the same tense, voice and form. It also matches phrases or clauses with those written in the same structure.

Here are some examples.

These are parallel. They match verbs with verbs and are all in the same form.

  • He likes biking, running and swimming.
  • He likes to bike, run and swim.

These are not.

  • He likes biking, running and to swim.
  • He likes to bike, run and swimming.

They mix up two different verb forms: the ‘ing’ form (gerund) and the ‘to do something’ form (infinitive).

These ones change voice (active to passive) and tense (past to present).

  • The participants discussed the topic and their ideas were presented to the group.
  • The manager ran the meeting, wrote up the minutes and provides action points.

Lists often lead us astray. Each point in a list must have the same grammatical form and order, and be able to be read from the introductory line. This example breaks that rule.

For your programme this week, please ensure that you:

  • bike 40 kilometres
  • run 10 kilometres
  • have swum no less than 1000 metres. [changes tense: should be ‘swim’]

Let’s look at another example. It changes the structure and order.

  • He biked up to the corner, turned sharply and down the hill he sped. [should be 'sped down the hill']

We can also go wrong with adverbs.

  • She works quickly and in a careful manner. [should be 'carefully']

Look at this job ad that manages to break most of the parallel rules.

The role requires the successful applicant to:

  • support and work closely with clients, managers and in a team environment [changes structure: could read ‘…clients, managers and colleagues’]
  • completion of financial statements and tax returns
    [uses a noun not a verb; should be ‘complete’]
  • have had accounting experience in a business environment
    [changes tense: should be ‘have’]
  • strong technical accounting skills
    [missing verb: should start with ‘have’]
  • manage your own allocated portfolio
    [changes person: should be ‘their’]
  • providing consultancy services that add value to our client's business.
    [uses different verb form: should be ‘provide’.]

At best, non-parallel structures jar the reader; at worst, they can alter the meaning of your text or make it unclear. It’s worth taking the time to check for these switches in your writing tracks.

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Comments (1)

Tom Spratt

Oh yes please. I feel like I am sailing through a hurricane with most of the documents I am asked to read these days. Far from smooth sailing. Mostly in the press, I might add! Thanks again Lynne