Tag Archives: Parallel construction

A sign in a Virginia Railway Express passenger car.

Parallel construction

“Check series of words or phrases for parallel construction,” says one entry on my proofreading and copyediting checklist. What is parallel construction?

It’s a principle requiring “that expressions similar in content and function be outwardly similar,” according to The Elements of Style.

The first example that Strunk and White give in that book is the Beatitudes (from the Gospel of Matthew):

Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.…

That Scripture passage continues, with all the statements following the same form.

Both The Elements of Style and Words Into Type (in its discussion of parallelism) give plentiful examples of correct parallel construction and faulty construction.

“Who were the first leaders in chemistry, physics, and in biology?” is one example of faulty construction given in Words Into Type. Each subject name should be preceded by the preposition in, or only the first, applying it to the whole series: in chemistry, in physics, and in biology or in chemistry, physics, and biology.

Grammar Girl gives a worse but typical example: She lost her agent, publisher, and her books weren’t selling. She continued:

That’s like saying She lost A, B, and 3; what happened to C? This is verbal bait-and-switch. The reader expects another noun after agent and publisher, and feels cheated when the third element is a clause instead. Why not rewrite the sentence with two independent clauses: She lost her agent and publisher, and her books weren’t selling.

One extreme example of faulty construction that I included in the book The Editor’s Companion* was a sign in a Virginia Railway Express train.

Only the first item logically follows the word provides. The sign would have been better without the words This car provides: It still would have fallen short of parallel construction, however, because the second and third items contain the verb to be (in the forms are and is), and Notice: introducing the second item is superfluous. The whole sign is a notice and doesn’t need the extra label.

Here’s how the text could have been edited to be parallel:

Welcome to VRE

Priority seating locations are first seat on left side of car.

Steps to upper levels are 3 feet inside car on left and right sides of aisle.

This car is not equipped with a toilet.

While we’re cleaning up this text, let’s do a complete job:

Welcome to VRE [there’s no reason to italicize the initials]

Priority seating is the first seat on the left side of the car. [“locations are the first seat” was an awkward mix of singular and plural, and omitting “the” didn’t make it easier to read]

Steps to the upper levels are 3 feet inside the car on the left and right sides of the aisle. [again, omitting “the” didn’t help; omitting “3 feet” and “of the aisle” might work, though: “Steps to the upper levels are inside the car on the left and right sides”]

This car is not equipped with a toilet.

“Series are tricky forms to correct,” notes Words Into Type. Grammar Girl’s A, B, and 3 remark is a helpful reminder: are all parts of a series structured the same?


* I meant to include a whole section on parallel construction. Thanks to Liz Dexter of Libro Editing for pointing out this omission, which I’m trying to rectify here until the hoped-for second edition.

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