If you’ve ever been told that your writing is sometimes awkward in spots, one problem might be faulty parallelism. Usually when you’re writing about a series of things within one sentence, each item in the series should be in the same form as the other items. If the items are in the same form, you have parallelism in your writing. If they are not in the same form, you have faulty parallelism, and that’s the problem we’re going to work on in this unit.

When we talk about items being in the same form, we’re talking about grammatical forms, such as nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, prepositional phrases, and clauses. Here is an example of faulty parallelism in which it is easy to see that the writer is switching grammatical forms:

(a) In order to be classified as great, a baseball player must hit with power, a high lifetime batting average is necessary, to field well, be a fast runner, and throwing with strength and precision.

After you read (a) aloud, do the same with (b), which is a good example of parallelism:

(b) In order to be classified as great, a baseball player must hit with power, achieve a high lifetime batting average, field well, run fast, and throw with strength and precision.

Just by reading it aloud, you can tell that (b) has a nice sound, a flow, a repeated pattern that (a) lacks. By analyzing the structure of (b), you can see that the sentence has those good features because all the parts match in form and because all of them can be read with what we call a “setup.” The setup in (b) is α baseball player must. Notice that each of the five items can be read fluently with a baseball player must. Read aloud each of the following items with this setup:

a baseball player must:

1. hit with power

2. achieve a high lifetime batting average

3. field well

4. run fast

5. throw with strength and precision

In other words, each item in the series (1 through 5) can be read individually with the setup, which in this case is a baseball player must. In sentence (b) the setup is the subject plus a helping verb, and the items all begin with base verbs (hit, achieve, field, run, and throw).

In your rewrite of sentence (a), what if you had repeated the word must five times? Then you’d have this: In order to be classified as great, a baseball player must hit with power, must achieve a high lifetime batting average, must field well, must run fast, and must throw with strength and precision. It sounds a little stiff and wordy, doesn’t it? It shows one of the problems you might encounter in your rewrites. Your revisions of sentences that contain faulty parallelism should normally cut down on wordiness, not add to it. Therefore, you should use a word like must only once—in the setup—if you can, and that way you’ll avoid awkward, pointless repetition. Use repetition only if you have a special reason for doing so; one valid reason is to give extra emphasis. But this will be the rare case, not the norm.

You should also realize, however, that sentence (b) is not the only possible revision of the faulty parallelism in sentence (a). Here is another, quite different rewrite that is also good:

(c) In order to be classified as great, baseball players have to be more than power hitters with a high lifetime batting average; they must also excel at running, fielding, and throwing.

Notice how sentence (c) has parallel structure by using the parallel verbs running, fielding, and throwing.

Important notes on creating strong parallelism

When you try to correct faulty parallelism and to create good parallelism, you’ll sometimes find that there’s no way you can construct one setup that will work with all your items. That’s no problem. In that situation, just create two setups. For instance, you might have written a list of qualities that a person should have to become a good doctor, but mixed in it are a number of observations about characteristics that probably do not predict success in medical practice. What are you going to do? You might unravel your items and create one setup for the “dos,” or the assets, as you might call them, and another setup for the “don’ts,” or the liabilities.

Sometimes it’s not a matter of creating two setups; rather it is a matter of removing one stubborn item and making it into a separate sentence. That is another good solution for faulty parallelism.

Exercise 4.3

In each of the following items, underline the part that is an example of faulty parallelism. Then rewrite that section, correcting the problem. (You don’t have to rewrite the entire item, just the part that needs to be revised.) Try to use a good setup that you can read with all the parts that follow it. Read your revision aloud.

1. One key factor in the effort to revitalize our national system of education is the need to raise the minimum grade point average required for entrance into a college or university teacher-training program. In addition, if the teachers of the future are to come from the best class of students, they will need higher salaries, the issue of greater professional status being important, and if they have more opportunities for advancement.

2. Some transcontinental travelers have found ways of minimizing their great curse—jet lag. If you’re flying from the United States to Europe, for instance, there is no way to avoid this phenomenon because traveling such a long distance in such a short time will inevitably disrupt the body’s rhythms. But there are things you can do to adjust as quickly as possible. Seasoned travelers suggest that you take a daytime flight, should eat as little as possible on the plane, and napping as much as you can in the air. Then when you reach your destination, whatever you do, don’t go to sleep until the sun sets.

3. Many parents find it difficult to know if a child is ready to start kindergarten. According to Louise Bates Ames and Frances L. Ilg of the Gesell Institute of Child Development, it’s not just a matter of chronological age. Not all five-year-olds are ready to benefit from being in an organized school setting. Ames and Ilg suggest that before the child begins, parents should make sure he or she already has certain skills. The child who is ready for kindergarten should be able to name at least three or four colors, drawing or copying a square should be a simple matter, repeat a series of four numbers without practicing them, the ability to tell the right hand from the left, and if the child can identify what things such as cars, chairs, and shoes are made of. The authors suggest, by the way, that most little ones are not ready for kindergarten until they’re five and a half.