|Oregon State Bar Bulletin DECEMBER 2007|
Keeping the Grammatical World in Order
By Suzanne E. Rowe
We grammar curmudgeons like order. Sentences in loops and jumbles make us surly. We prefer straight edges and parallel lines.
That’s why we revel in the beauty of parallel sentence structure. All the parts are tidy, nothing is out of order, and the logic is clear.
Parallel structure occurs when the elements of a list share the same grammatical structure. For example, a list of nouns should contain only nouns, not a jumble of nouns, clauses and verbs. Compare the following two sentences:
Correct: The plaintiff suffered from leg cramps, headaches and respiratory problems.
Incorrect: The plaintiff suffered from leg cramps, headaches and had respiratory problems.
The first list is neatly in order. The plaintiff suffered from three things, all of which are nouns — leg cramps, headaches and respiratory problems. The second sentence is a jumble. The plaintiff suffered from leg cramps and headaches, but then a new verb "had" jumps into the sentence. The new verb isn’t needed; "suffered" is doing a fine job introducing the list of the plaintiff’s health issues. And the new verb kills the parallel structure.
Parallelism can take place at any level of the sentence. The following sentence is parallel because each action the prosecutor takes begins with a new verb — stood, walked and sighed.
Correct: The prosecutor stood from the table, walked toward the jury and sighed dramatically.
Notice how unpleasant the following sentence is with its parallelism destroyed.
Incorrect: The prosecutor stood from the table, was walking toward the jury, and she sighed dramatically.
The first and third parts of the incorrect sentence each contain a complete thought in the simple past tense: "The prosecutor stood from the table" and "she sighed dramatically." The second part doesn’t have a subject, and it’s in a slightly different tense (called past progressive, if that interests you). To restore parallelism, make the verbs the same tense, as in the first example — stood, walked and sighed. Then decide whether to use the extra pronoun "she" before both "walked" and "sighed." The revised sentence below is parallel because each part of the sentence has both a subject and a verb.
Correct (alternative): The prosecutor stood from the table, she walked toward the jury, and she sighed dramatically.
Longer lists provide more possibilities for destroying the logical structure of the sentence. Consider the classic rule for attractive nuisance, as introduced in a memorandum:
Incorrect: The plaintiff must prove that the injury was caused by an artificial condition on the landowner’s property, the place where the injury occurred was one where the landowner knew or should have known children were likely to trespass, the age of the child, and that the landowner failed to exercise reasonable care to protect trespassing children.
The sentence begins well enough. The first two items — concerning the artificial condition and the landowner’s knowledge of trespassing children — include both subject and verb. The third item, however, has no verb. What about the age of the child is important? The fourth item begins with a common mistake; it repeats "that" from the beginning of the sentence. Grammatically, an excerpt of that part of the sentence reads, "The plaintiff must prove that that the landowner failed to exercise reasonable care to protect trespassing children."
While numbering parts of a sentence cannot alone correct problems with parallelism, numbering can help you see where the problems arise. Note the following correction:
Correct: The plaintiff must prove that (1) the injury was caused by an artificial condition on the landowner’s property, (2) the place where the injury occurred was one where the landowner knew or should have known children were likely to trespass, (3) the age of the child prevented him from understanding the risk, and (4) the landowner failed to exercise reasonable care to protect trespassing children.
Some pairs of phrases require parallel construction. One common example is "not only … but also." The information following each phrase needs to be the same grammatical structure. Notice the problems with the example below.
Incorrect: The police officer explained not only the current violation but also reviewed the past incidences involving the defendant.
This sentence isn’t parallel because the parts following "not only" and "but also" aren’t grammatically the same. Following "not only" is the noun phrase "the current violation"; following "but also" is an extra verb "reviewed" that scoots in right before the noun phrase "the past incidences." There are two ways to fix this sentence. The first example below deletes the extra verb. The second example moves "explained" after "not only" so that it parallels "reviewed."
Correct (option 1): The police officer explained not only the current violation but also the past incidences involving the defendant.
Correct (option 2): The police officer not only explained the current violation but also reviewed the past incidences involving the defendant.
Another common pair is "either … or." Consider the following example, and see whether you spot the faulty parallelism.
Incorrect: Without a majority vote, the bill is either reworked for another vote or dies in committee.
After the word "either," the reader expects a parallel set of options, separated neatly by "or." But "reworked" and "dies" aren’t parallel. (Technically, the second option reads "the bill is dies in committee.") The problem here is that "either" came too late in the sentence. Moving it before "is" makes the sentence parallel.
Correct: Without a majority vote, the bill either is reworked for another vote or dies in committee.
A hyphen can take the place of the word "to" or the word "and" in a sentence referring to ranges. But for the sentence to be parallel, a hyphen can’t be matched with "from" or "between." Those words have parallel friends that must accompany them. From goes with to, and between goes with and. Your choices are (1) using word pairs or (2) using a hyphen.
Incorrect: The price can range from $5,000-$10,000.
Correct (option 1): The price can range from $5,000 to $10,000.
Correct (option 2): The price is in the $5,000-$10,000 range.
Locating Faulty Parallels
Once you recognize the beauty of parallelism, of course you’ll want to make all your sentences glimmer with this structure. Here’s how.
First, note when a sentence provides alternatives, a list or a set of options. Draw a line after the words that introduce the alternatives, list or options. Then check to ensure that each of the following items uses the same grammatical structure. The prosecutor example above demonstrates this technique:
The prosecutor /
stood from the table,
walked toward the jury and
With this list, it’s easy to see that the three endings (stood — walked — sighed) are verbs. They’re also in the past tense, which makes the parallelism even clearer.
Note how obvious the problem is when faulty parallelism is listed using this technique:
The prosecutor /
stood from the table,
walked toward the jury, and
she sighed dramatically.
Even on a wretched Monday, you’re sure to see that "she" is not the same grammatical structure as "stood" and "walked."
How parallel is your universe? Try these — all examples I’ve stumbled into lately:
1. The statute defines "visibly intoxicated" to mean not only drunk but also includes high on drugs.
2. I prefer to begin research on Google because it is free, user-friendly and provides access to much information.
3. The plaintiff suffered terribly through watching her son die, her daughter fatally injured, and heard the screams of her husband.
4. The judge served from 1979-2001.
5. The client will be unavailable between September 30-October 7.
6. The agency’s website provided information on eligibility to obtain a license, building codes, links to relevant regulations, and provided additional information on licensing procedures.
Suggested revisions (though others may work just as well):
1. The statute defines "visibly intoxicated" to mean not only drunk but also high on drugs.
2. I prefer to begin research on Google because it is free, it is user-friendly, and it provides access to much information.
3. The plaintiff suffered terribly through watching her son die, seeing her daughter fatally injured, and hearing the screams of her husband.
4. The judge served from 1979 to 2001.
5. The client will be unavailable between September 30 and October 7.
6. The agency’s website provided information on (a) eligibility to obtain a license, (b) building codes and (c) licensing procedures. The website also provided links to relevant regulations. [Note: I’m guessing at the author’s meaning. The original sentence was too fuzzy to follow.]
Welcome to my universe.
Diana Hacker, The Bedford Handbook (7th ed. 2005).
William Strunk, Jr., & E. B. White, The Elements of Style (4th ed. 2000).
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Suzanne E. Rowe is an associate professor at the University of Oregon School of Law, where she directs the Legal Research and Writing Program. You may contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. She appreciates the comments of Amy Nuetzman on this article.
© 2007 Suzanne E. Rowe