This post has nothing to do with math. It has to do with shapes. But the shapes of language, which are way cooler than, say, rhombuses. Rhombi. Bent rectangles. You get what I mean.
I’m sure you’ve all heard the term “parallel structure,” always imagining sets of parallel objects, like yellow lines on the road or meticulously laid chopsticks or some gymnastic beams. Parallel is one of those words that invokes strong mental images, probably because we are forced to memorize its definition as children during the same phase we learn shapes and spacial reasoning and how to not walk into walls all the time.
Parallel is important. It means separate but equal. Two paths that can never cross. Two dimensions that should never be mixed in case you accidentally meet your parallel-self and cause the universe to implode.
In writing it still means separate but equal, but your concepts should cross. Sort of.
While I would (and will) definitely argue that individual words can create parallelism, the real concept is based on parallel grammatical constructs. To achieve a balance in your language, establish a rhythm in your prose, you have to make sure all of your grammatical formations are in sync.
Think of a group of synchronized swimmers; if one is out of time with the others, doing some kicky move with her legs in the air while the rest of the swimmers are doing jazz-hands, the majesty and flow of the performance is ruined. Your writing functions the same way. If you throw in an off-note, an incorrect tense, a flat-out wrong verb form, your reader is going to notice. And probably not be happy.
What Parallelism Isn’t
If you’re used to reading pretty polished writing, you may not see a lot of examples of a-parallel structure. It’s something a lot of editors will catch in early drafts. Seeing the dissonance in action might help you understand (and ultimately kill) it. For example, this sentence is clearly not balanced correctly:
“Oliver loves brewing, drinking, and to pour beer on his head when he’s drunk.” (note: this may or may not be a nonfictional sentence)
That last infinitive form verb (to pour) breaks the pattern established by the two present participles (brewing, drinking). It just sounds…odd. While there is nothing necessarily wrong with that sentence, the lack of parallelism hurts the flow, and more importantly, the style.
This mistake can happen when a writer mentally builds a simple sentence (Oliver loves to pour beer on his head when he’s drunk) and then tacks on the present participles to add more context to the sentence. When you write, you want to make sure all of the grammatical parts of the same sentence are cut from the same hunk of verb:
“Oliver loves brewing, drinking, and pouring beer on his head when he’s drunk.” (And yes, I do realize this sentence implies that I enjoy brewing beer on my head)
While being a good manager of your grammatical employees is probably the most important part of parallelism, there are several other ways to use it to enhance your language or drop a little hardcore flair into your prose. Using duplicate words to create solidarity between two phrases is one of my favorites:
“The noises of the 56.6k modem were the heralds of my budding social life; each bleep and blarg and chzzzk-chzzzk got me closer to my friends, closer to that much coveted teenage popularity.” (This is a line from a piece I pitched to 20 Something Magazine)
By repeating closer, I’m connecting the second phrase to the first, but also building on the impact and emphasis of the first. This is a fun technique but writer beware: too much of this can annoy a reader and make your writing seem lazy and uninspired. Use this like Sriracha. A little squirt adds a lot of spice.
Another form comes to us from rhetoric: chiasmus. This literally translates from the Greek “khiasmos” which means simply, “cross.”
This is a form that is prevalent throughout spiritual texts (like the Bible and the Book of Mormon) as well as political speeches and public announcements. It’s a form you’re probably pretty familiar with, only because it stands out so strongly on the page (and lends itself so well to sound-bites):
“When everyone is famous, no one will be.”
Chiasmus follows traditional symbolic logic. The example above is ABAB, but it can follow almost any pattern that completes a logical loop:
ABBA: “You do not dance with the queen, the queen dances with you.”
ABCABC: “Refreshing like a lager, intoxicating like an ale.”
ABCCBA: “To relax is to be at peace, to be at peace is to be free.”
The most important thing about chiasmus is the correct balancing of the sentence. If one side is too heavy, or has an extra verb or preposition or clause, it ruins the effect. This device works well as a single line paragraph, a quick transition, or a way to really connect that baseball bat of emphasis to the knuckle ball of your theme.
All of this seems very artsy. That’s because it is. Parallel structure is a chance for you to play with your language, infuse it with the Frankenstenian extract that makes writing come to life. It gives your writing that je ne sais quoi, making it sound natural and effortless and, for lack of a more descriptive term, good.
There are many other ways to use parallel structure to improve your writing, like matching prepositional phrases (the boat on the beach near the house on the shore) or matching appositives (Hansel, the fearless brother, and Gretel, the benevolent sister). Using any of these comes down to intentionally building a sort of syncopation, where the pacing and structure and diction all work together to create sentences that almost sound like music.
The language is your sheet music. Your brain is the composer. Go make some literary music using parallel structure.