Tricks of the Trade: Parallel Structures–Writing with Rhythm

Whenever you include multiple items or clauses in a long sentence, write them all with similar word and phrase patterns. Long sentences that do not have these parallel structures are often hard to follow.

For example, here is a sentence that is difficult to read:

Bob enjoys many activities: going hiking, chess, his friends, to play his old Nintendo, and reading detective novels.

The writer did not use parallel structures for expressing these items. The ideas unify in a thematic sense (since they are all activities Bob enjoys), but the writing does not reflect that unity. The sentence can be adjusted to align content (what is said) with style (how it is said). The writer can do this by using a parallel gerund pattern. (A gerund is formed by adding –ing to the end of a verb so that the word then functions as something else, usually a noun.)

Here is the resulting sentence, with the parallel gerund pattern underlined:

Bob enjoys many activities: going hiking, playing chess, hanging out with his friends, playing his old Nintendo, and reading detective novels.

This sentence can be improved further by beginning with the shortest item and progressing towards the longest one. This way, there is yet another pattern:

Bob enjoys many activities: playing chess, going hiking, reading detective novels, playing his old Nintendo, and hanging out with his friends.

This sentence provides an even better reading experience than the first revision because now it has an ordered pattern. Sentences that show patterns are easier to read than those that are random and chaotic. On top of that, parallel structures let writers take control of long sentences. With parallel structures in your sentences, you’ll write much longer sentences than you may have thought you could—and those sentences, despite their length, will be surprisingly easy to read.

In addition to helping present phrase items in a series (as seen above), parallel structures are useful for presenting sentences with multiple clauses. Here is an example of parallel structure using clauses:

Although Bob enjoys many leisure activities, and although he has many friends, most of his time is spent focusing on his career.

Notice how both dependent clauses in the example above begin with the word although. This creates a pattern, and it holds the reader’s attention, even in a long sentence. Read the sentence aloud; do you hear the rhythm?

Here is another example. However, this new parallel structure uses to before each verb. (This “to + verb” formation is called the infinitive form.)

A strong writer seeks to achieve three main goals: to reason with sound logic, to communicate with clear language, and to empathize with thoughtful appeals.

The writer could convert the infinitive pattern to an –ing (gerund) pattern:

A strong writer seeks to achieve three main goals: reasoning with sound logic, communicating with clear language, and empathizing with thoughtful appeals.

(What additional change was made? Consider this point.)

Parallel Structures: A Stunning Example from MLK

Utilizing parallel structures can create much longer sentences than the examples shared above. For example, look at the sentence below, written by Martin Luther King, Jr., and as you do so, behold the unbridled power and unadulterated majesty of parallel structures:

Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking, “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are), and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”—then you will know why we find it difficult to wait.

Powerful, isn’t it? What is the parallel structure here? What are the words that King repeats in every dependent clause? What effects do they have on you as you read? Think about these points as you consider the power and effectiveness of parallel sentence structures.

Next Up: More Examples from MLK

As we have done in previous Tricks of the Trade articles, we will look once again to the writing of MLK–this time for examples of parallel structures at their best. If you want to observe the effective use of parallel structures within sentences, you need look no further than the prose of MLK.

Works Cited

King, Martin Luther, Jr. “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. Ed. Clayborne Carson. New York: Warner Books, 1998. 188-204. Print.

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman Christopher Altmanproduces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).