CAT Verbal Ability: Understanding Parallelism in Sentence Construction

(Photo: Apurv Pandit)

 

Before we discuss the technical nuances of parallel construction in sentences, let’s analyse the two sentences written below,

A. Every friend of John is a friend of mine.

B. Every friend of John is also my friend.

Sentence A creates more impact on the reader/listener than sentence B does. What is there in sentence A that makes it more agreeable to our ears than sentence B?

The answer is ‘parallel construction’. Parallel construction is to prose what rhyme scheme is to poetry. Parallel arrangement of ideas in prose gives it the beauty and balance that are most commonly found in poetry. Parallel construction gives sentences clarity of meaning and creates satisfying rhythm.

William Strunk in his book Elements of Style defines parallel construction as,

In parallel construction, expressions of similar content and function should be outwardly similar. The likeness of form enables the reader to recognise more readily the likeness of content and function.

In a sentence, the main idea should not be repeated and similar ideas, which are logically comparable, should be in the same form. The similar ideas should have the same level of importance and should be in the same grammatical form. Let’s take a very simple example.

A. John loves gardening, singing and to dance. (Faulty parallelism)

B. John loves gardening, singing and dancing. (Correct parallelism)

Here, the main idea in both the sentences is ‘John loves’ and it has not been repeated. In sentence B, the similar ideas: gardening, singing and dancing, are in the same form, and hence it conforms to parallel construction; in sentence A, on the other hand, the similar ideas are not in the same form. Gardening and Singing are gerunds, whereas to dance is an infinitive.

Here are some often-quoted examples of parallel construction from literature and from the speeches of great men. The similar ideas, which appear in parallel form, are underlined.

“Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.” – Julius Caesar (William Shakespeare)

A living dog is better than a dead lion – Ecclesiastes

Government of the people, for the people, by the people. – Abraham Lincoln

I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, sweat and tears. Winston Churchill

In the writings of other poets a character is too often an individual; in those of Shakespeare it is commonly a species. – Samuel Johnson

Below we have a few examples of parallel construction from The Holy Bible,

A cheerful heart is a good medicine but a downcast spirit dries up the bones.

Have you entered into the springs of the seas, or walked in the recesses of deep?

Jesus Christ is the head of this house, the silent listener of every conversation, the unseen host of every meal.

Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.

The biggest challenge lies in spotting the similar ideas in a sentence, for it is only the similar ideas that, as a rule, must be parallel. The dissimilar ideas may not always be parallel. Here is an example,

On all these shores there are echoes of past and future: of the flow of time, obliterating yet containing all that has gone before.

The writer, in the above example, has used two parallel prepositional phrases: ‘of past and future’ and ‘of the flow of time’ and two parallel participles: ‘obliterating’ and ‘containing’.

The two prepositional phrases express one similar idea, and the two participles express another.

There are a number of situations in English writing where parallel construction is desired, such as the ones in the table below.

Faulty parallelism

Correct Version

Idiom

She is both a great writer and dances well

She is both a great writer and a talented dancer

Both X and Y (X and Y must be parallel and logically comparable)

He is not for war but peace

He is not for war but for peace

Not X but Y (for war=x, for peace=Y)

The hurricane not only destroyed the fishing fleet but also the homes of the fishermen.

The hurricane destroyed not only the fishing fleet but also the homes of the fishermen.

Not only X but also Y (X=the fishing fleet, Y=the homes of the fisherman)

Either you must leave the house or pay the entire rent

You must either leave the house or pay the entire rent

Either X or Y (X=leave the house, Y=pay the rent)

Neither you must grant his request nor incur his ill will

You must neither grant his request nor incur his ill will

Neither X nor Y (X=grant his request, Y=incur his ill will)

Rahul felt the movie was boring, silly and was too long

Rahul felt the movie was boring, silly and too long

The French, Italians, Indians and the Portuguese

The French, the Italians, the Indians and the Portuguese

Article parallelism

My opinion is different and contrary to yours

My opinion is different from and contrary to yours

Preposition parallelism (different from and contrary to)

My income is smaller than my wife

My income is smaller than my wife’s.

Correct comparison (my income and my wife’s )

Formerly, chemistry was taught by the textbook method, while now the laboratory method is employed

Formerly, science was taught by the textbook method; now it is taught by the laboratory method

Clause parallelism (both the parts follow Subject+verb+prepositional phrase)

I would rather spend my vacation in London than sitting all day at home

I would rather spend my vacation in London than sit all day at home

Rather x than Y (X=spend….., Y=sit….

The article has been conceptualised and authored by the think tank at Genesis Mentors, Pune. Visit their website, PaGaLGuY page and Facebook page.

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