A Question of Parallelism

The following letter was sent to me recently. After replying to the letter directly, I asked if I could reprint a version of the letter here on the blog. The letter writer’s problem was simple, but extremely common: the almost-parallel sentence. The fact that the necessary changes are small doesn’t mean that they are insignificant.

Dear Rachael:

Could you please tell me if the punctuation in the following sentence is correct?

I have learned humility and empathy volunteering in remote barefoot hospitals on the Burmese border; I have learned the values of respect and dedication working alongside families in the rice fields of Thailand; I have learned patience and responsibility while educating both children and elders in village schools in Ecuador, and I have discovered the worth of companionship and the value of support systems while working with abandoned children in Cambodia.

Here is a reworked version of my reply:

The problem with the punctuation in this sentence is inconsistency. These list items could be separated by either semicolons or commas, but the pattern should be followed consistently. Here are three options:

ONE: The same pattern, used consistently

I have learned humility and empathy volunteering in remote barefoot hospitals on the Burmese border; I have learned the values of respect and dedication working alongside families in the rice fields of Thailand; I have learned patience and responsibility while educating both children and elders in village schools in Ecuador; and I have learned the worth of companionship and the value of support systems while working with abandoned children in Cambodia.

The simplest solution: use the same verb in all four instances and replace the final comma with a semicolon. The benefit of this approach is the emphasis that comes via the repetition of ‘I have learned’; that simple repetition can help to draw the reader’s attention to the four different experiences. The downside is the repetition and the limits imposed by using a single verb to express many different things.

TWO: A similar pattern, with four different verbs

I have learned humility and empathy volunteering in remote barefoot hospitals on the Burmese border; I have experienced the values of respect and dedication working alongside families in the rice fields of Thailand; I have demonstrated patience and responsibility while educating both children and elders in village schools in Ecuador; and I have discovered the worth of companionship and the value of support systems while working with abandoned children in Cambodia.

In this case, the four different sentences are given different verbs. This version avoids repetition and gives the writer the opportunity to express more nuance.

THREE: A different pattern, with one verb followed by a list

I have learned many things from my work in the field: humility and empathy volunteering in remote barefoot hospitals on the Burmese border; the values of respect and dedication working alongside families in the rice fields of Thailand; patience and responsibility while educating both children and elders in village schools in Ecuador; and the worth of companionship and the value of support systems while working with abandoned children in Cambodia.

Here, the list is placed after a single verb. This approach works well when repetition is undesirable and when that single verb applies equally well in all cases.

Overall, the writer must consider meaning, preference, and context to decide on the best way to establish parallelism. Once we identify faulty parallelism, our decision about how to fix it must be based on a renewed understanding of what we are trying to say. And once that meaning is clearer to us, we can make further refinements based on our own stylistic preferences and any particular demands of the context in which we are writing.

Finally, the original question asked only about punctuation, so I focused my revision on the punctuation and the structuring of the list. Parallelism, of course, also relies on parallel expression. In this example, parallelism could be further improved by a consistent use (or omission) of ‘while’ and by a more consistent pattern across the four sentences.

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4 responses to “A Question of Parallelism

  1. Lovely! While I’ve only been tutoring and marking for a short while, this is something I’ve found that a lot of students struggle with, and getting it right makes all the difference for the reader. Correctly used semicolons literally send a shiver of pleasure down my spine.

    I’ve had a look around your website and I’d love to send next year’s students here to read up on how to polish their academic writing. My worry is that they will suffer a meltdown if I send them straight to the front page of your blog, though – have you considered writing a page specifically for new visitors, perhaps linking to your Five Key Strategies and Three Key Principles with a brief note to introduce each?

    I have a couple of links that I tend to send out to my students at the start of term, and one of them offers a page of that nature. I’ve found that most of them seem more comfortable browsing that particular site than the others, and while I can’t say whether it’s because of the content or the ease of finding the basics before moving on to the blog, I suspect that it is.

    That’s not at all meant as a criticisms, by the way, merely a request! Thanks for a good block; I’m chuffed to have found it. Subscribed. 🙂

    • Thanks, Martin. It’s true that my site is very much geared towards graduate students and might be a bit intimidating to a novice undergraduate writer. If you have a link to the ‘new visitors’ page that you mentioned, I’d be interested. Thanks for the suggestion. I’ve been thinking about creating some sort of interface page–maybe called ‘how to use this site’–that would function like a table of contents to help new users navigate the site.

      • Hello again! I’m away from the office and won’t be back for another couple of weeks, which unfortunately means that I don’t have access to my bookmarks, and for the life of me I can’t remember the name of the website I mentioned – sorry! I had a rifle through what I have bookmarked on my laptop, though, and the closest I could get is this: http://myuniversitymoney.com/first-time-visitors-click-here/

        Now, that’s not a particularly great website nor is the structure of their new visitors-page as good as the one I mentioned, but hopefully it gives you an idea of what I meant.

        Just realised I said “thanks for a good block” in my previous post – I was more than a little bit tired at the time of writing. I meant blog, of course, and thanks again.

      • Thanks, Martin–that gives me an idea of an approach to try. I hope you are enjoying your break from the office!

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