Parallels in Grammar and Etiquette
By Suzanne E. Rowe
Rules of grammar, like rules of etiquette, avoid awkward situations and promote understanding. Grammar helps us avoid awkwardness and misunderstandings in writing; etiquette avoids awkwardness and misunderstandings at the dinner table.
Let’s say a friend invites you to a small dinner party. Everyone enjoys appetizers in the living room, then you move to the dinner table, which is set with soup bowls. You anticipate the host’s famous minestrone, or maybe the new gazpacho he’s been talking about. But he opens a wine bottle and pours the pinot noir into the soup bowls.
This creates an awkward situation. Are you supposed to use your soup spoon? Or lift your bowl as though it were a stemless wine glass? You’re confused, missing his point. Is he being avant garde? Is he distraught because he just got laid off and doesn’t realize his mistake? You hesitate, looking for a clue from your host and watching to see what the other guests do. If your host had just followed the rules of etiquette, pouring the wine into wine glasses, this awkward situation would never have come up.
That same awkwardness pops up in our writing when we don’t use parallel construction. We tee up the reader for a certain unfolding of events (soup bowl), then change the game (wine). The reader hesitates, looks around the sentence for clues, and eventually figures out what we intend to say. Using proper grammar, though, the awkward situation never comes up.
Long-time readers with good memories will know that I wrote about parallel construction in December 2007. I carefully explained, “Parallel structure occurs when the elements of a list share the same grammatical structure.” I carefully demonstrated how to locate faulty parallels by lining up the parts of a sentence that provide the list (whether or not enumerated):
The prosecutor - stood from the table - walked toward the jury and - sighed dramatically.
Sadly, that article did not change the world. I still see nonparallel sentences in newspapers, on museum placards and in legal texts. (Did you note the lovely parallelism of that sentence? in newspapers, on museum placards, in legal texts.) Please, let me try again.
In the News
A South African newspaper recently used this quote to draw attention to a lead article: The ANC election manifesto is defensive, unimaginative, and contains few new ideas.
This is a simple example of nonparallel construction, causing me just a moment of hesitation, so it’s a good place to start. The sentence contains two adjectives to describe the African National Congress’s platform: defensive and unimaginative. I naively expected the third item to be another adjective, but no. I was hit with a verb clause: contains few new ideas.
One grammatical solution is to make the third item an adjective: outdated, dull, moribund, bereft of new ideas. Then the sentence is parallel: The ANC election manifesto is defensive, unimaginative and outdated.
Another solution is to give each of the three items its own verb. In the original sentence, the first and third segments have verbs: is defensive and contains few new ideas. Giving the second segment a verb makes the sentence parallel: The ANC election manifesto is defensive, is unimaginative and contains few new ideas.
In the Garden
A world-famous botanical garden contains a fascinating little display on weeds. But the placard contains nonparallel construction, which kept me focused on sentences rather than plants: People create weeds, by introducing plants to places where they wouldn’t normally be. We grow them in our gardens, parks and to improve the urban landscape.
The second sentence states where and why people create weeds, but creates a grammatical mess: We grow them in our gardens, parks and to improve the urban landscape.
Try lining up the three endings:
We grow them in - our gardens - parks - to improve the urban landscape.
One easy solution is to create two clauses, one addressing where people grow weeds and another stating why. We grow them in our gardens and parks, primarily to improve the urban landscape. The independent clause states where we grow weeds, and the dependent clause states why. The independent clause is parallel, and the extra information about why we grow weeds is tucked away by itself in the dependent clause where it doesn’t have to be parallel with anything.
Honestly, I can’t remember why growing weeds improves the urban landscape. And therein lies the biggest problem with nonparallel sentences: your reader is distracted by the structure and misses your meaning.
On the Web
Finding mistakes on Wikipedia is so common that I almost left out the following example: The batsman may attempt one run, multiple runs, or elect not to run at all. (I know that the sentence is grammatically incorrect; I leave to others whether it correctly conveys the rules of cricket.)
So, really, what the second part of this sentence says is the batsman multiple runs. Makes no sense, does it?
The structure of the sentence suggests that the reader is about to learn what a batsman may do after hitting the ball that the opposing player has just bowled to him:
The batsman may attempt one run.
The batsman may attempt multiple runs.
The batsman may elect not to run at all.
Aiming for brevity in the single sentence, the writer left out the verb for the batsman attempting multiple runs.
Here’s my favorite fix: The batsman may attempt one run or multiple runs, or the batsman may elect not to run at all. This sentence uses two independent clauses. In the first, the batsman runs; in the second, he doesn’t. Here, structure aids meaning.
In the Museum
A lovely museum has a placard that explains an artist’s innovations: His notion was not only ahead of its time, but also reflected the weight of his artistic integrity.
The pair not only … but also needs to bracket parallel structure. Often, we clumsily bracket a verb here but not there. That’s what happened in the museum’s placard. Once the sentence started out His notion was the items in not only … but also don’t need verbs; was has filled that role.
I first tried to fix this sentence by dropping the second verb, reflected. That didn’t work. (Give it a try. The resulting sentence is absurd: His notion was… the weight of his artistic integrity.)
Next, I tried moving the not only to come before the verb was. That allowed — actually, it required — the part of the sentence after but also to have a verb, so I got to keep reflected.
Here’s the fixed sentence, made parallel by switching around three words (was not only became not only was): His notion not only was ahead of its time, but also reflected the weight of his artistic integrity.
Going back to Grammar 101, the two endings of the sentence have parallel structure and make perfect sense:
His notion - not only was ahead of its time. - but also reflected the weight of his artistic integrity.
Of course, you could just delete the not only … but also construction for a simpler sentence: His notion was ahead of its time and reflected the weight of his artistic integrity.
In Legal Texts
The manuscript of a book I edited recently contained this sentence: The public laws enacted by Congress are published first as slips laws, permanently as session laws, and codified. The sentence provides important ideas, but it’s not parallel.
The sentence explains the three iterations of public laws, and it includes helpful time markers first and permanently. But the last little bit of the sentence, and codified isn’t parallel with as slip law and as session laws.
My suggestion to the author (a wonderful writer who falls into the “too busy” camp with many of us) was to include parallel information in the last part to say what the laws are codified as: The public laws are published as codified statutes. To continue the time markers, I added later. Here’s the final edit: The public laws enacted by Congress are published first as slips laws, permanently as session laws, and later as codified statutes.
In a case on statutory construction, a court wrote, “[T]here is no occasion to resort to rules of statutory interpretation where the language used by the legislature is plain, unambiguous and conveys a clear and definite meaning.”1 The second half of the sentence is not parallel. For ease, let’s consider it in isolation: The language used by the legislature is plain, unambiguous and conveys a clear and definite meaning.
This example repeats the problem in the first example, back in the newspaper. The first fix back there won’t work here unless you can think of an adjective for conveys a clear and definite meaning. (Admission: I couldn’t, but the editor I live with suggested “concise.” The language used by the legislature is plain, unambiguous and concise. That’s close. But using it would mean deleting the next few paragraphs, of which I am rather fond.)
The second fix works; giving a verb to each of the three ideas requires only the addition of is before unambiguous. Here’s the result: The language used by the legislature is plain, is unambiguous and conveys a clear and definite meaning.
My preference is using two independent clauses. That means inserting and between the two adjectives plain and unambiguous, and providing a subject for the verb conveys. To emphasize the language, I’d use a semi-colon between the two clauses. Here’s my suggestion: The language used by the legislature is plain and unambiguous; the language conveys a clear and definite meaning.
Minimalists among us might argue that there’s no need for both clauses. Language that is plain and unambiguous is by definition clear and able to convey a definite meaning. Thus, the minimalists might argue for just one or the other. They’ve got a good point.
Because lawyers are professional writers, we should be extra careful with our words. Because our readers are busy, we should avoid grammatical situations that make readers hesitate, unsure of our meaning. We should create a more parallel universe.
1. Davis v. Pub. Emps.’ Ret. Sys., 750 So. 2d 1225, 1233 (Miss. 1999).
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Suzanne E. Rowe is the James L. and Ilene R. Hershner Professor at the University of Oregon School of Law, where she directs the Legal Research and Writing Program. She has been on sabbatical this past semester, discovering that she is incapable of ignoring writing problems wherever she might be.
An archive of The Legal Writer articles is available here.
© 2014 Suzanne E. Rowe