What is “faulty parallelism”?

So, my main job the last few weeks has been editing manuscripts. Gosh, I love editing! Editing a text is ten times easier (and more fun), in my opinion, than writing the same text is. That’s why my approach to writing is to write first and worry about everything else later (but more on that in some future blog post).

Like many people who like editing, I can’t turn my “grammar brain” off. In fact, it’s sometimes hard for me to focus on the bigger picture until the grammar of a draft is clean, so I often edit, revise, and proofread at the same time as I review a paper. Then, at the end, I mentally “zoom out” to decide if the paper works or not. It’s inefficient, but it’s the system that works for me.

One issue has cropped up in nearly every paper I’ve read of late. I think that’s because it hasn’t, to my knowledge, been the subject of a mainstream expose, like the “less vs. fewer” issue has, for example. That issue is faulty parallelism. In truth, it’s something that is easier to demonstrate than to describe, so I will provide many examples of it below.

However, first, I think it might be useful to define parallelism so that it is easier to talk about what might make it “faulty.” In essence, you’ve put two or more items in parallel when you have explicitly (or implicitly) connected them with “and” within a sentence (or, less often, with “or” or “nor” or some other connector). This makes each item, from a grammatical standpoint (and usually from a meaning standpoint), “equal.”

Consider the following sentence:
“I like to write blog posts about science and grammar.” 

Here, “science” and “grammar” are connected with “and;” thus, they are in parallel. This means I am telling my reader that I consider “science” and “grammar” to be equal with respect to the grammar (and meaning) of the rest of the sentence—that I like to write blog posts about them both and that I like doing so an equal amount–which is true!

It’s also very common to see three or more items in parallel, with the first items separated by commas and the last two items separated by a comma plus “and.” For example:
“Science, grammar, and crosswords are all important topics to blog about.”

As an aside, even items in a bulleted list or in a list after a colon are in parallel, so everything I talk about here applies to these types of items as well.

So, what, then, leads to “faulty” parallelism? Faulty parallelism occurs when items put in parallel should be equal but aren’t. This can either because the grammar of parallelism is broken (the grammar of the rest of the sentence works less well for some items than it does for others) or for meaning reasons (you have equated items that probably shouldn’t be treated as equal). Let’s first consider some examples of when the former occurs:

Issue #1. Words leading into the parallelism work for only some of the items.

Consider the following sentence:
“Coming up with a good example might take a second, minute, or hour.”

This example is useful for demonstrating the way I figure out whether the parallelism in a sentence works or not: Because each item in parallel should be “equal,” see if the sentence works grammatically with each item in the list individually–it should. So, for this example, this would look like:
“Coming up with a good example might take a second.”
“Coming up with a good example might take a minute.”
“Coming up with a good example might take a hour.”

Did that last sentence hit your eyes with a “clang?” It should have! The indefinite article “a” doesn’t work with a word that starts with a vowel sound like “hour” does. “Hour” would need “an” leading into it, but that is not what it gets here–it instead gets an implied “a.” So, as much of a bummer as it is, the “correct” way to write this sentence involves “distributing” (like you would in algebra) the article down into each of the items so each one gets the particular article it needs:
“Coming up with a good example might take a second, a minute, or an hour.”

The same thing can happen when the word or phrase leading into the list is a preposition (like “for,” “behind,” “into,” etc.) or a verb phrase (“pick up,” “put down,” “chew through,” etc.). Take the following example:
“I’ve spent days thinking up good examples, funny jokes, and proper grammar.” 

Here, I’ve made sort of a mess of my verb phrases. The verb phrase “think up” makes sense for “good examples” and “funny jokes” when “distributed” down to them, but it feels weird with “proper grammar.” To my ear, I should be “thinking about” proper grammar instead of “thinking up” it. There are two ways to solve this particular problem. The first would be to again distribute the right particle word down into each of the items so each item has the particle that works best for it: “I’ve spent days thinking up good examples, up funny jokes, and about proper grammar.” 

To some (or most) of you, that will look and sound weird, even though it’s technically ok. If it sounds better to you, distribute the whole phrase instead:
“I’ve spent days thinking up good examples, thinking up funny jokes, and thinking about proper grammar.” 

If this still feels clunky to you, then you can try the second solution, which is to rephrase the sentence to not force items into parallel that require different forms in the first place:
“I’ve spent days thinking up good examples and funny jokes as well as refining my grammar.” [“as well as” is a good connector if you already have an “and” creating parallelism in the sentence–here, it marks a “second layer” of parallelism that is distinct from the one being created by “and.”]**

**Here I have to tearfully insert a correction. It turns out that “as well as” can’t mean “and.” While “and” puts items in parallel as equals, “as well as” purposely makes things unequal. You can think of “as well as” as meaning “not only X but also Y [with emphasis on the Y!].” If you want to know more, see the helpful article here. So, “as well as” won’t help us here. We’ll need to just decide on a new way to say this sentence (or, perhaps, make it multiple sentences! That’s always an option…). 

Fun side note! The accidental (or purposeful) use of one word or verb phrase to modify two or more items in parallel even when it works less “well” for some items is called a “zeugma.” In the above example, my zeugma was a mistake—”think up” didn’t work as well with “proper grammar” as it did with the other items in my list. However, a zeugma can also for the funsies, as in the classic joke “I went fishing and caught three trout and a cold.” (You have to change which meaning of “caught” to apply to each item in the list).

Issue #2: There is variation in the items in the list.

I see variations on this issue all the time. Here’s an example:
“Slowly, carefully, and with caution, I wrote this example.”

Meh. Another clanger, right? It just feels off, somehow. That’s because while “slowly” and “carefully” are adverbs, “with caution” is a prepositional phrase. In this case, the faulty parallelism here is pretty easily avoided by converting “with caution” into an adverb too:
“Slowly, carefully, and cautiously, I wrote this example.”

This type of error is easy to make when the items in parallel are long:
“It is really important not only to write with proper parallelism but also writing in such a way will ensure you will not grow any extra toes.” 

This example is tricky because our connector here is “but also” instead of “and” and because there are two long items in parallel instead of three. However, the trick I mentioned earlier works here too—does the sentence work equally well for the two items individually (if you take out all the others)?
“It is really important…to write with proper parallelism.” 
“It is really important…writing in such a way will ensure you will not grow extra toes.” 

Here, I accidentally made the switch from a sentence chunk starting with an infinitive (“to” + a verb, in this case “to write”) to a sentence chunk starting with a gerund phrase (a verb in “-ing” form functioning as a noun, in this case “writing”). To me, this example feels like a classic case of “trying too hard.” Some things are just not meant to be in parallel, even if they share the same base verb (here, “write”). These are really two separate though related thoughts and should be treated as such:
“It is really important to write with proper parallelism because doing so will ensure you will not grow any extra toes.” 

Issue #3: The (implied) subjects of the items change.

Consider the following example:
“Tonight, I’m going to shower, eat dinner, and my puppy and I will play in the yard.”

Here, the error hopefully jumps out. “I” is the subject of the first two items (only implied in the second), but “my puppy and I” become the subject of the third item, which would create the following garble if we used our trick from earlier:
“Tonight, I’m going to…my puppy and I will play in the yard.”

In this case, just making sure the subject stays consistent fixes the problem and requires only a little rephrasing to keep the meaning fully intact:
“Tonight, I’m going to shower, eat dinner, and play with my puppy in the yard.”

Issue #4: Leading words are distributed inconsistently down to the individual items.

This is kind of a corollary to Issue #1 above. Sometimes, we might accidentally only halfway distribute the leading words down into our items. Take the following:
“My duties are the fixing of the grammar of others, solving of statistical problems, and the championing of student research.” 

In this (awkwardly formal) example, I have a series of gerund phrases (-ing verbs functioning as nouns, as in “the fixing,” “the solving,” and “the championing”) in parallel.  However, these would just be participle phrases (verbs in “-ing” form that work along with the other verbs in a sentence, here “are,” to form a verb phrase) if not for the “the”s, which make them into nouns rather than verbs. Because those “the”s change the form of the item, it’s weird that a “the” is missing from only the second item. If we decide the sentence starts with “My duties are the…,” then that part works with that second item but not with the third, which would have a duplicate “the” at the beginning. So, reinserting that missing “the” fixes the issue:
“My duties are the fixing of the grammar of others, the solving of statistical problems, and the championing of student research.” 

…It’s still an ugly sentence though! Even though it’s a fix that requires more work, it’d probably be better to go with the participle phrases instead, which also gets rid of the prepositional phrases:
“My duties are fixing others’ grammar, solving statistical problems, and championing student research.” 

This actually illustrates one other good point: Often, faulty parallelism comes about from an overly wordy sentence as much as from carelessness. If you catch yourself having faulty parallelism, see first if you can just make your sentence simpler!

Issue #5: Items that should probably not be equal are put in parallel anyway.

I mentioned earlier than faulty parallelism can be the result of grammar issues, conceptual issues, or both. Here is when we talk about the latter, which means we have to get a bit more philosophical. Here, the problem is more with meaning and intention than with grammar. Consider the following example:
“To get our samples, we used soil corers, data loggers, and undergraduate students.”

Yeah, ok, this is concise, and it works grammatically, but think about the implications here: Should we be “using” (see definition #5) undergraduate students in the same way as we “use” soil corers?? Are undergraduate students “equal to” inanimate and easily disrespected tools like soil corers and data loggers, as far as we’re concerned? I should hope not! Again, the simplest solution here is to ditch the parallelism entirely in favor of a longer but more thoughtful sentence:
“To get our samples, we used soil corers and data loggers, and we also enlisted the help of amazing undergraduate students.”

Or you can at least insert a different noun into the last item to soften the meaning:
“To get our samples, we used soil corers, data loggers, and a team of undergraduate students.” (A “team” is technically inanimate, at least!)

Two side notes: The Oxford comma and long parallelisms

While we’re on the subject of parallelism, we might as well talk about one of the more talked-about punctuation issues in the English language: the Oxford comma. The Oxford comma is the comma that comes right before the “and” in a list of three or more parallel items:
“We went walking, biking, and swimming.” [In there between “biking” and “and swimming.”]

Depending on whom you ask, this comma is either more important to the grammar of a sentence than Santa Claus is to children or, alternatively, entirely unnecessary. I’ll be honest—I stand firmly in the first camp, and I’ll tell you why. It has to do with what parallelism is doing; it’s making items “equal” in standing so that the reader knows what is more important versus less important. I, as a reader, have to try to understand your intention, and I only have your writing to go on. So, I am counting on you to combine or separate items in such a way that I can tell when the items listed are equally important or not, and the Oxford comma helps me parse what you are saying better so that I can do that.

Take the following examples:
“When you go to the store, make sure to buy toilet paper, cereal, construction paper, and glue.”
“When you go to the store, make sure to buy toilet paper, cereal, construction paper and glue.”

Now, imagine that I forget to buy glue when I go to the store. In the first sentence, you’ve separated the last two items, so I know they are of equal importance to you. Thus, when I forget to buy glue, I know I’m going to make you 25% mad because I forgot to buy 25% of your list. However, in the second sentence, “construction paper and glue” are joined, as if they are, together, a single item. What does that mean? Does it mean each is still equally important with respect to all the other items, just as in the first sentence? Does it mean these two goods are each only half as important as “cereal” because “cereal” is an item by itself? Is glue totally useless without construction paper, such that if I forget to buy glue, I’ve “ruined” the usefulness of the construction paper too, even if I buy it? Does the construction paper and glue come as one unit, such that I was supposed to buy the kind that comes in a set rather than individually?? The point is—I can’t tell! Your meaning isn’t clear to me. Depending on what you intended, by forgetting to buy glue, I will either make you 25% mad, 12.5% mad, or 50% mad, and I can’t know until I come home and find out!

So, in short, just use the damn Oxford comma! :). There’s really very little reason not to…including it will never hurt you.

The other side note I have to add here is a little trick. What if you have a set of items you want to put in parallel but each item is long, complex, and/or has a lot of commas in it already? When your items get bulky, the underrated and underutilized semicolon comes to your rescue! Just as you would normally separate items that are in parallel with commas, instead separate really long items with semicolons instead, as in the following example:
“Writing with proper parallelism requires you to be very thoughtful about whether or not you should be equating any two or more items; to be sensitive to whether or not articles, verb phrases, prepositions, or other particles need to be distributed down into each item; and to ensure you remain consistent with how you format each item as well as with how you define the subject of each item.”

Did I cover every aspect of this issue? Did I get any of the underlying grammar wrong? Did my examples help? Do you have any other fun examples of zeugmas? Please share them in the comments below!