Course 1: Lesson 6

Parallel Construction

           Writers often ignore the concept of parallel construction. When they express themselves using what they believe to be clear language, they assume everyone feels the same way. Not so. It is the writer’s obligation to structure that language in such a way as to be consistent. Failure to do so leads to confusion, especially when the written communication is lengthy, as in the case of an extended blog entry, a five-page college term paper, or an extensive written report required by an employer.

          Let us begin our discussion from the corporate perspective. Many adults returning to the classroom have had lots of experience presenting corporate concepts publicly. Mid to lower-level managers are frequently called upon to deliver PowerPoint lectures to business audiences. Those of us who have experienced many of these typical presentations know the message is coming across to the audience via the written words on the slide presentation, not the verbal commentary. Would-be presenters stand in crowded rooms and click incessantly for an hour, reading the contents of the slide to the listeners.

          Over the years, I have made a personal observation about such communications. It is not the speaker that is so typically terrible, but the written content on the slide that fails to capture the audience. Why? Once again, it is because a poor writer handled the slide preparation. When the structure of a written document causes inconsistency, readers, who are no different from listeners, lose their focus. They have no road map to the thoughts of the writer.

          Suppose at the corporate slide show meeting, the presenter begins relating a nice tale about how corporate profits were down ten years earlier, but earnings have recently been excellent. Even those not into statistics can understand that concept. However, suppose the next slide shows projections for the upcoming ten years, followed by a slide dealing with the current bank balance of an unrelated corporation, which is completely off-topic.

          Now, suppose further that the third slide focuses on the CEO’s family vacation years earlier. The listener, or reader, is lost. The connection is gone because the slide writer did not understand a basic writing concept. The result is tantamount to a mystery novel, instead of an informative presentation. The same thing frequently happens to writers in academia. The Sociology professor is forced to guess at the punch line because the consistent thread that binds the writing is damaged. As a result, she zaps the student’s grade.

          Parallel construction deals with the structure of formal writing that tends to keep everything in the proper perspective. There are two areas that are frequently abused by many writers. Correcting these simple writing violations drastically improves the quality of virtually all forms of written communication. The first one deals with word consistency, and the second with tense consistency. Let us examine these concepts separately.

          Many folks swim. They jog. They hike. Likewise, many people love to play golf. They enjoy bike riding and surfing. However, when it comes to describing their enjoyable pastimes, writers often express their ideas inconsistently.

          Consider the following example:

          I like swimming, hiking, to golf, riding, and to surf.

          Do you recognize the inconsistency? Parallel construction in writing requires the expressions of these ideas in a uniform manner, consistent with the principles of good grammar. The person writing the above sentence might have written:

          I like swimming, hiking, golfing, riding, and surfing.

          Or the person might have written:

          I like to swim, to hike, to golf, to ride, and to surf.

          However, looking at the original sentence, you can see the writer chose neither of these options. The writer penned an inconsistent sentence, switching back and forth between the gerund form and the infinitive form. It is unnecessary to memorize the definition of a gerund. Everyday writers, especially those with weak backgrounds in grammar, need not study the intricacies of infinitives. However, they must write consistently. Therefore, we write:

          swimming, hiking, golfing, riding, and surfing.

Or we write:

          to swim, to hike, to golf, to ride, and to surf.

However, we do not mix and match word construction in the same manner we mix and match clothing. The structure of our writing must be parallel or equal. The structure must be consistent.

          Let us try another example:

          I like to run and flying.

See the inconsistency? The structure of the sentence is not parallel. The sentence might read:

          I like running and flying.

Or the sentence might read:

          I like to run and to fly.

          The sentence should not display both gerund and infinitive forms of the words run and fly in the same sentence. They must be consistent or parallel. Adhering to this simple concept polishes written academic assignments, formal business presentations, or everyday written communications, making it far easier for the reader to follow.

          Another type of parallel construction deals with the tenses of verbs used in any type of writing. Let us look at the following example. In this paragraph, it is obvious the writer did not determine the basic tense of her work in advance:

          Steve awoke with a start when the alarm rang. He takes a shower, got dressed, drives to work, and would never again forget his first day on the job.

          Wow! First, Steve did something in the past. He awoke. Then, he is showering in the present. The writer next shifts back to the past, where Steve already got dressed. However, somehow he immediately drives in the present, with thoughts of the future. I pity the reader.

          Remember, parallel construction is a concept. We understand and use the concept as a benefit to the reader. My purpose here is not to teach grammatical rules, but to expose the writer to broad concepts that improve the overall quality of writing. We have focused on consistency with words and tenses, but parallel construction can be applied to a variety of writing situations.

          Let us consider another analogy to parallel construction. Imagine a couple is about to build its dream house. Picture the couple driving to the beach to see the construction progress made by the builder. When the two people arrive, they notice the left side of the house is brick, while the right side is wood. The roof is black on the left side and made of slate. The roof is white in the middle and made of shingle. The roof is green on the right side and made of aluminum. The couple picked out wonderful French doors, which lead to the deck overlooking the ocean. However, only half the door opens outward. The other half slides.

          Get the picture?

           The house can be built with such inconsistencies, but the homeowners will be as unhappy as the readers forced to trudge through ten pages of a term paper or business report lacking parallel construction. Moreover, student grades and employee evaluations will suffer.

          Newscasters often comment on how society commends those of us who think outside the box. We applaud creativity. It is definitely not my purpose to squelch creativity. However, practicality dictates that the serious, focused business person, or any writer for that matter, would do better to concentrate on consistency in her writing than to attempt a creative History paper or blog entry that resembles a kaleidoscope.

          Parallel structure need not be boring. Sentences should vary in length. Words chosen from a good vocabulary add excitement to writing. Nevertheless, the serious person wanting to write well must be realistic enough to appreciate that academia and corporate America rarely find room for poetic expression and unique style. Both forums prefer a structure built on consistency. I am not referring to papers written in creative writing college classes, but to research and term papers that comprise many of the written submissions required to succeed in graduate school or to advance in the corporate world. The thread that binds writing in any form is consistency. Allow the reader to know the direction of your ideas by presenting them consistently throughout. The concept is simple:

          Keep Writing in Parallel Construction.