If Martin Luther King, Jr. didn’t use parallel structure so effectively in his speeches, would we still remember him today?
Well, yes. But that’s not the point. The point is that today, in honor of the great Reverend, we’re going to explore a cornerstone of good writing: parallel structure.
Parallel structure means repeating a certain patterns of words in a related pair or series. This is easy to see in the famous “I Have a Dream” speech, a segment of which I’ll copy here:
“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.’
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.”
The parallelism is easy to see here: the repetition of “I have a dream that …” is one of the most famous examples of parallelism in written history. It’s so common, in fact, that I’m a little embarrassed that I’m using it here. All I need next is a post about how rap is just hip poetry, and I’ll be every high school English teacher in the country. (Accordingly, I should point out that teachers who say that rappers are just modern Shakespeares have never read the lyrics to “Like a G6.”)
But parallelism isn’t always so easy to spot, or correct, in our own writing. It’s often much more subtle, and that’s where writers get tripped up. Take another line from King’s speech, for example:
“With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.”
As this sentence showcases, whenever a writer is making a list of any sort, the items in the list must be parallel to each other. King creates parallelism in this line when he repeats infinitive phrases (to + a verb). If he had written, “…we will be able to work together, to pray together, struggling together, and we can go to jail together,” there would be no parallelism, and his ideas, no matter how powerful, would be lost in his mangled verbs.
1. Do not mix forms. ”Bobby likes swimming, running, and biking” is a correct parallel sentence, because all of his verbals (these are called gerunds, but you don’t need to know that right now) end with -ing. ”Bobby likes swimming, running, and to bike” is not correct because the forms do not match each other.
2. Do not mix forms. You won’t always run into issues with parallelism in a simple list, like above. You must maintain parallel structure when repeating a clause, too.
Incorrect: Bobby was told that his swimming was superb, that his running was incredible, and he was an amazing biker.
Correct: Bobby was told that his swimming was superb, that his running was incredible, and that his biking was amazing.
3. Do not mix forms. A sentence cannot switch between active (the subject does the verb) and passive (the verb is done by the subject) voice.
Incorrect: Bobby trained, read fitness books, and good meals were eaten by him.
Correct: Bobby trained, read fitness books, and ate good meals.
4. Do not mix forms. All of your verbs should be in the same tense: don’t mix past with present tense, present with future tense, etc.
Incorrect: Bobby will go to the Olympics, will win gold, and he wanted to make his country proud.
Correct: Bobby will go to the Olympics, will win gold, and will make his country proud.
And don’t worry: you don’t need to know what an infinitive phrase or a gerund is to check your writing for parallelism. If you have a list of any sort, make sure that all of the items in that list are similar and parallel to each other. If you’re writing a resume, make sure that you describe your job skills in a parallel way (i.e. “As a sandwich artist, I oversaw the counter, cared for customers, and created edible art”).
Finally, to close, one more wonderfully parallel thought by Dr. King:
“If you can’t fly, then run. If you can’t run, then walk. If you can’t walk, then crawl. But whatever you do, you have to keep moving forward.”
And just for posterity’s sake, the poetic ruminations of “Like a G6″:
“Sippin’ on, sippin’ on sizz, I’ma ma-make it fizz; girl, I keep it gangsta’, poppin’ bottles at the crib.”
Shakespeare would be proud.