Parallelism is often referred to as one of the basic principles of grammar and rhetoric. Parallelism refers to using elements in sentences that are grammatically similar or identical in structure, sound, meaning, or meter. This technique adds symmetry, effectiveness, and balance to the written piece.
Parallelism uses similar words, phrases, or clauses to show that ideas have the same level of importance. This structure improves readability by giving a natural flow to a written work.
For native speakers of English, parallelism is often instinctive. We say, "I like reading, writing, and painting" instead of "I like to read, writing, and painting."
However, one common mistake novice writers make involves failing to keep items in a list after a colon in a parallel form. "Writers can use an online dictionary to find help with these issues: word meanings, pronunciations, and finding correct spellings" does not use a parallel construction. Changing the text to read, "Writers can use an online dictionary to find help with these issues: word meanings, pronunciations, and correct spellings" gives it a parallel construction and improves readability.
Additional examples of parallel sentence structure include:
Parallelism in rhetoric is used to persuade, motivate, and/or evoke emotional responses in an audience and is often used in speeches. The balance between clauses or phrases makes complex thoughts easier to process while holding the reader or listener's attention.
Some examples of parallelism in rhetoric include:
The opening paragraph of Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities is perhaps the best-known example of parallelism in literature. Parallelism is shown by using "it was" to connect opposing ideas.
"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way."
William Shakespeare often used parallelism in his plays. Consider the following excerpt from Richard II.
"I'll give my jewels for a set of beads,
My gorgeous palace for a hermitage,
My gay apparel for an almsman's gown,
My figured goblets for a dish of wood,
My scepter for a palmer's walking staff
My subjects for a pair of carved saints
and my large kingdom for a little grave."
Diazeugma, using a number of verbs to describe a subject, is also a form of parallelism. This can be seen in "Vacation '58," a short story by John Hughes.
"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."
"Shooting an Elephant," an essay by George Orwell, uses the experience of hunting an aggressive elephant in Burma as a metaphor for British Imperialism. Starting each phrase with "some" creates a parallel structure that reinforces how easy it is for observers of the same event to have entirely different opinions.
"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."
The poem "The Tyger" by William Blake uses repetition of "what" to create a pleasing rhythm.
"What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? What dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?"
"How Do I Love Thee?" by Elizabeth Barrett Browning also creates rhythmic verse with repetition of the parallel structure "I love thee."
"How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day's
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood's faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death."
"Community" by John Donne contrasts ideas of "good" and "love" with "ill"and "hate" using parallel structure.
"Good we must love, and must hate ill,
For ill is ill, and good good still;
But there are things indifferent,
Which we may neither hate, nor love,
But one, and then another prove,
As we shall find our fancy bent."
E.E. Cummings' poem "love is more thicker than forget" uses the words "love is" and "more" or "less" to create a parallel structure that explains the meaning of love.
"love is more thicker than forget
more thinner than recall
more seldom than a wave is wet
more frequent than to fail
it is most mad and moonly
and less it shall unbe
than all the sea which only
is deeper than the sea
love is less always than to win
less never than alive
less bigger than the least begin
less littler than forgive"
Reading written text out loud is often an effective way to identify examples of parallelism or areas that need editing to maintain a parallel structure. Listening to the rhythm of words as they flow from your tongue will help you maintain the desired balance in your writing, whether you're writing a persuasive essay or a romantic love poem.