Parallelism (Grammar)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Woody Allen
"I don't want to live on in my work," said filmmaker Woody Allen. "I want to live on in my apartment." These two independent clauses illustrate both parallelism and negative-positive restatement.

 Samir Hussein/Getty Images

In English grammar, parallelism is the similarity of structure in a pair or series of related words, phrases, or clauses. Also called parallel structure, paired construction, and isocolon.

By convention, items in a series appear in parallel grammatical form: a noun is listed with other nouns, an -ing form with other -ing forms, and so on. Kirszner and Mandell point out that parallelism "adds unity, balance, and coherence to your writing. Effective parallelism makes sentences easy to follow and emphasizes relationships among equivalent ideas" (The Concise Wadsworth Handbook, 2014).

In traditional grammar, failure to arrange related items in parallel grammatical form is called faulty parallelism


From the Greek, "beside one another"

Examples and Observations

  • "Buy a bucket of chicken and have a barrel of fun."
    (Slogan of Kentucky Fried Chicken)
  • "How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live!"
    (Henry David Thoreau, A Year in Thoreau's Journal: 1851)
  • "The loss we felt was not the loss of ham but the loss of pig."
    (E. B. White, "Death of a Pig." The Atlantic, January 1948)
  • "When you are right you cannot be too radical; when you are wrong, you cannot be too conservative."
    (Martin Luther King, Jr., Why We Can't Wait. Signet, 1964)
  • "Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal."
    (T.S. Eliot, "Philip Massinger," 1920)
  • "It took a man like Madiba to free not just the prisoner, but the jailer as well; to show that you must trust others so that they may trust you; to teach that reconciliation is not a matter of ignoring a cruel past, but a means of confronting it with inclusion and generosity and truth. He changed laws, but he also changed hearts."
    (President Barack Obama, speech at the memorial service for former South African president Nelson Mandela, December 10, 2013)
  • "After a few miles, we drove off a cliff.
    "It wasn’t a big cliff. It was only about four feet high. But it was enough to blow out the front tire, knock off the back bumper, break Dad’s glasses, make Aunt Edythe spit out her false teeth, spill a jug of Kool-Aid, bump Missy’s head, spread the Auto Bingo pieces all over, and make Mark do number two."
    (John Hughes, "Vacation '58." National Lampoon, 1980)
  • "New roads; new ruts."
    (Attributed to G. K. Chesterton)
  • "He's quite a man with the girls. They say he's closed the eyes of many a man and opened the eyes of many a woman."
    (Telegraph operator to Penny Worth in Angel and the Badman, 1947)
  • "They are laughing at me, not with me."
    (Bart Simpson, The Simpsons)
  • "Voltaire could both lick boots and put the boot in. He was at once opportunist and courageous, cunning and sincere. He managed, with disconcerting ease, to reconcile love of freedom with love of hours."
    (Attributed to Dominique Eddé)
  • "Truth is not a diet but a condiment."
    (Attributed to Christopher Morley)
  • "Some of the people said that the elephant had gone in one direction, some said that he had gone in another, some professed not even to have heard of any elephant."
    (George Orwell, "Shooting An Elephant." New Writing, 1936)
  • "Our transportation crisis will be solved by a bigger plane or a wider road, mental illness with a pill, poverty with a law, slums with a bulldozer, urban conflict with a gas, racism with a goodwill gesture."
    (Philip Slater, The Pursuit of Loneliness. Houghton Mifflin, 1971)
  • "Unlike novelists and playwrights, who lurk behind the scenes while distracting our attention with the puppet show of imaginary characters, unlike scholars and journalists, who quote the opinions of others and shelter behind the hedges of neutrality, the essayist has nowhere to hide."
    (Scott Russell Sanders, "The Singular First Person." The Sewanee Review, Fall 1998)
  • "O well for the fisherman's boy,
    That he shouts with his sister at play!
    O well for the sailor lad,
    That he sings in his boat on the bay!"
    (Alfred Lord Tennyson, "Break, Break, Break," 1842)
  • "[Today's students] can put dope in their veins or hope in their brains. . . . If they can conceive it and believe it, they can achieve it. They must know it is not their aptitude but their attitude that will determine their altitude."
    (Rev. Jesse Jackson, quoted by Ashton Applewhite et al. in And I Quote, rev. ed. Thomas Dunne, 2003)

Effects Created by Parallelism

  • "[T]he value of parallel structure goes beyond aesthetics. . . . It points up the structure of the sentence, showing readers what goes with what and keeping them on the right track."
    (Claire K. Cook, Line by Line. Houghton Mifflin, 1985)
  • "Several studies have shown that in conjoined structures, even without ellipsis, parallelism of many types is helpful to the processor, in that the second conjunct is easier to process if it is parallel to the first in some way . . .."
    (Katy Carlson, Parallelism and Prosody in the Processing of Ellipsis Sentences. Routledge, 2002)

"Parallelism has the potential to create rhythm, emphasis, and drama as it clearly presents ideas or action. Consider this long, graceful (and witty) sentence that begins a magazine article on sneakers:

A long time ago—before sneaker companies had the marketing clout to spend millions of dollars sponsoring telecasts of the Super Bowl; before street gangs identified themselves by the color of their Adidas; before North Carolina State's basketball players found they could raise a little extra cash by selling the freebie Nikes off their feet; and before a sneaker's very sole had been gelatinized, Energaired, Hexalited, torsioned and injected with pressurized gas—sneakers were, well, sneakers.
[E.M. Swift, "Farewell, My Lovely." Sports Illustrated, February 19, 1990]

First note the obvious parallelism of four clauses beginning with the word before and proceeding with similar grammatical patterns. Then note the parallel list of sneaker attributes: gelatinized, Energaired and so on. This is writing with pizzazz. It moves. It almost makes you interested in sneakers! Of course you noticed the nice bit of word play—the sneaker's very sole."
(Lauren Kessler and Duncan McDonald, When Words Collide: A Media Writer's Guide to Grammar and Style, 7th ed. Thomson Learning, 2008)

Pronunciation: PAR-a-lell-izm

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Parallelism (Grammar)." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 27). Parallelism (Grammar). Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Parallelism (Grammar)." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 22, 2023).