- Parallelism is the repetition of a grammatical structure to emphasize a relationship between ideas.
- Parallelism gives balance, focus, and clarity to a sentence.
- Parallelism establishes a pattern of repetition that writers can manipulate to create a vast array of rhetorical effects.
Writers can reinforce and emphasize their use of parallelism by repeating one or more words in each item in a series:
He told himself he liked her, and
he liked her around him,
liked to look at her,
liked her laugh,
liked her near him,
liked to think of doing thing for her,
defending her against demons and
—James T. Farrell, Studs Lonigan
Parallelism also gives the reader a pattern to follow so that writers don’t need to repeat the words used in each grammatical structure. In fact, parallelism is such a captivating tool that writers can even leave words out because the reader expects the pattern to be repeated and therefore easily supplies the missing words. This technique of omitting a word or words readily implied by the context is called ellipsis.
These boys and girls were will-less, their speech flat, their gestures vague, their personalities devoid of anger, hope, laughter, enthusiasm, passion, or despair. —Richard Wright, Black Boy
These boys and
girls were will-less,
their speech [was] flat,
their gestures [were] vague,
their personalities [were] devoid of anger,
Since parallelism establishes a pattern, writers can manipulate the patterns they establish to play with a reader’s expectations, surprising the reader with unexpected twists of information. This technique of using a word in a series or pair that does not fit grammatically or idiomatically with one member of the series or pair is called zeugma.
I am an expert in stucco,
a veteran in love, and
an outlaw in Peru.
—student admissions essay.
Larry Joe Bird emerged from the Boston Celtics’ locker room . . . wearing
and LSU Tigers cap… and
a resigned expression.
—Sports Illustrated, 28 November 1988
And parallelism is the perfect structure for comparison-and-contrast sentences and essays. Repeating a grammatical form focuses the comparison for the reader.
Old elephants limp off to the hills to die;
old Americans go out to the highway and drive themselves to death with huge cars.
—Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Here are some more rhetorical forms that are based on the use of parallelism.
[x , x , x , x ]
[ x, x ]
[x y, y x]
[ x, x, x]
[x y, x y]
[a and b and c and d]
Repetition of a word or group of words at the beginning of items in a series.
We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills.
—Winston Churchill, speech in the House of Commons, June 4, 1940.
Repetition of the last word of one structural unit at the beginning of the following structural unit.
The crime was common, common be the pain. —Alexander Pope, “Eloisa to Abelard”
Repetition of words, in successive clauses, in reverse order.
Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.
—John F. Kennedy, Inaugural Address
Juxtaposition of contrasting ideas, often in parallel structure.
Those who have been left out, we will try to bring in. Those left behind, we will help to catch up. —Richard Nixon, Inaugural Address
Repetition of the same word or group of words at the end of items in a series.
As long as the white man sent you to Korea, you bled. He sent you to Germany, you bled. He sent you to the South Pacific to fight the Japanese, you bled.
—Speech by Malcolm X
Repetition at the end of a clause or sentence of the word or phrase with which it began.
I might, unhappy word, O me, I might —Sidney Astrophil and Stella, 33
Repetition of one word or phrase at the beginning, and of another at the end, of successive clauses, sentences, or passages.
Most true that I deluded am with love,
Most true that I do find the sleights of love.
Most true that nothing can procure her love,
Most true that I must perish in my love. —Bartholomew Griffin, Fidessa, 62
Repetition of phrases or clauses balanced not only in structure but in the length of their structure.
Our dehumanization of the Negro then is indivisible from our dehumanization of ourselves; the loss of our own identity is the price we pay for our annulment of his.
Deliberate use of many conjunctions.
In early summer there are plenty of things for a child to eat and suck and chew.
Read the following sentences and study the layering diagrams below.
The horses were coming, looking as if their hides had been drenched and rubbed with soap, their ribs heaving, their nostrils flaring and closing.
1.) The horses were coming,
2.) looking as if their hides had been drenched and rubbed with soap,
2.) their ribs heaving,
2.) their nostrils flaring and closing.
The jockeys sat bowed and relaxed, their faces calm, moving a little at the waist with the movement of their horses.
1.) The jockeys sat bowed and relaxed,
2.) their faces calm,
2.) moving a little at the waist with the movement of their horses.
Sitting in the halted buckboard, Ratliff watched the old fat white horse come down the land, surrounded and preceded by the rich sonorous organ tones of its entrails.
2.) Sitting in the halted buckboard,
1.) Ratliff watched the old fat white horse come down the land,
2.) surrounded and preceded by the rich sonorous organ tones of its entrails.
John Chapman was sitting alone in the bank, peeling an apple carefully, the unbroken spiral hanging like a shaving as he turned the fruit.
1.) John Chapman was sitting alone in the bank,
2.) peeling an apple carefully,
3.) the unbroken spiral hanging like a shaving as he turned the fruit.
Lying there like a corpse in the dead leaves, his hair matted, his face grotesquely smudged and bruised, his clothes in rags and muddy, Will Farnaby awoke with a start.
2.) Lying there like a corpse in the dead leaves,
3.) his hair matted,
3.) his face grotesquely smudged and bruised,
3.) his clothes in rags and muddy,
1.) Will Farnaby awoke with a start.
My beard was about three days old, bordering on wino trim, and my eyes were totally hidden by Sandy Bull’s Saigon-mirror shades.
— Hunter S. Thompson
1.) My beard was about three days old,
2.) bordering on standard wino trim,
1.) and my eyes were totally hidden by Sandy Bull’s Saigon-mirror shades.
For teenage boys, physical rough-and-tumble play is replaced by verbal banter, exchanges of good-natured insults—a form of verbal attack.
— Deborah Tannen
2.) For teenage boys,
1.) physical rough-and-tumble play is replaced by verbal banter,
2.) exchanges of good-natured insults—
3.) a form of verbal attack.
Had there been an axe handy, or a poker, any weapon that would have gashed a hole in his father’s breast and killed him, there and then, James would have seized it.
2.) Had there been an axe handy,
2.) or a poker,
3.) any weapon that would have gashed a hole in his father’s breast and killed him,
4.) there and then,
1.) James would have seized it.
Now, make a layering diagram for the following sentences.
1. On the table an energy drink sat, a warm Red Bull, an undrinkable tooth-rotting concoction in a red, grey and blue can.
2. Andy Kaddaber dipped his hands in the bichloride solution and shook them, a quick shake, fingers down, like the fingers of a pianist above the keys.
3. There was a horrifying rush of cheddar cheese, followed immediately by the dull tang of soybean flour—the main ingredient in Gaines-burgers.
4. Outside, the lunatics were playing with their motorcycles, taping the headlights, topping off oil in the forks, last minute bolt-tightening (carburetor screws, manifold nuts, chrome skull-head tire caps), and the first ten bikes blasted off on the stroke of nine.
5. Then he puts down the saw and goes and crouches above the lantern, shielding it with his body, his back shaped lean and scrawny by his wet shirt as through he had been abruptly turned wrong-side out, shirt and all.
6. The weasel, scenting blood, backed up against the far wall of the box, yellow body tense as a spring, teeth showing in a tiny soundless snarl.
7. A flag hung in folds parallel with the pole, unfurling first in one direction then the other, the shadows rippling in vertical lines across the horizontal stripes.
8. She followed him for hours along streets whose names she never knew, across arterials that even with the afternoon’s lull nearly murdered her, into slums and out, up long hillsides jammed solid with two- or three-bedroom houses, all their windows giving blankly back only the sun.
9. In this little, lonesome dwelling, with some slender means that she possessed, and by the license of the magistrates, who still kept an inquisitorial watch over her, Hester established herself, with her infant child.
10. Children, too young to comprehend wherefore this woman should be shut out from the sphere of human charities, would creep nigh enough to behold her plying her needle at the cottage-window, or standing in the door-way, or laboring in her little garden, or coming forth along the pathway that led townward; and, discerning the scarlet letter on her breast, would scamper off, with a strange, contagious fear.
11. In a memoir, Jonny describes the hazing he endured as a freshman at Westmont High School, ranging from being forced to keep stolen Scantron keys that barely literate seniors had pilfered from teacher desks to squeezing his long arm up the chute of unplugged Pepsi machines to hit the proverbial switch that would release a cascade of sticky-sweet sugar water, carbonated and effervescent, much like the naïve and eager to please Jonny, whose glee at being mistaken for a junior clouded his nascent morality long enough to allow such lapses in his otherwise melodiously innocuous behavior, yet, just as he might slide into a career of moral turpitude, plopping him on the bare lawns of Boyton, forced to eat furtively his clumpy peanut-butter sandwich, no jelly thank you, the brown protein spread quite unevenly because no knives, even plastic ones, allowed on the highly-guarded grounds, Jonny found in Mr. Evans’ English I class what would soon transform the rough, untuned strands of his ragged melody, a rueful dirge never to be whistled with the percussive accompaniment of a metal cup raked listlessly across bars, mottled and cold: Jonny, ears unwaxed, heard the siren song of a girl, and, unlike his heroic counterpart, strolled over a sea of scuffed tiles to find bliss.