Difficulties in Faulty Parallelism
Last time, the Tip of the Week caused confusion with some readers. This sentence was at the heart of it:
I have written this account in penitence and in grief, as a man who failed to raise his pig, and to explain my deviation from the classic course of so many raised pigs. The grave in the woods is unmarked, but Fred can direct the mourner to it unerringly and with immense good will.—E. B. White, “Death of a Pig”
I noted that there were two instances of faulty parallelism, both of which might be hard to spot:
- As a man who failed to raise his pig isn’t parallel with to explain my deviation from the classic course of so many raised pigs.
- Unerringly isn’t parallel with with immense good will.
One long-time reader felt that the faulty parallelism was entirely noticeable but was warranted because White was being “ruefully whimsical.” I agree. The reader pointed me to a good article by Betsy O’Donovan that deconstructs White’s full essay, “Death of a Pig.”
The essay is to adults what Charlotte’s Web is to children, says O’Donovan. “White was as straightforward as a pie to the face” in his essay, O’Donovan writes, yet manages to put much emotion into it. His approach was “that of a hapless outsider—as his readers would be.” It’s in what he says, this “man who failed to raise his pig,” but it’s also in how he says it.
And how he says it sometimes breaks the rules, as with the cases of faulty parallelism. It’s a reminder to copyeditors to look at the whole. To edit for rhythm and the author’s style as much as for grammatical correctness.
Another reader posted in our comments section:
I’m a little confused. You (or perhaps the DEU) state that “unerringly isn’t parallel with with immense good will.” However, unerringly is an adverb modifying direct, and with immense good will is a prepositional phrase that acts as an adverb modifying direct. Why wouldn’t this be parallel?
Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage notes only that in “The Phenomenology of Error,” Joseph M. Williams states that there are two cases of faulty parallelism in the quoted passage. Neither source identifies the passages.
I can only surmise that the faulty parallelism I pointed out last week is what DEU and Williams were talking about. Given that these errors jump out for the previously mentioned reader, I think I’ve surmised correctly.
So can an adverb and a prepositional phrase be parallel?
Anonymous is correct that with immense good will is acting as an adverbial for direct. It tells us how Fred directed mourners to the unmarked grave. Prepositional phrases can take on several grammatical functions in a sentence. Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar lists three, with the following examples:
- subject: Under the bed is a dusty spot.
- adverbial: Our dog chased a squirrel in the garden.
- postmodifier in noun phrases: the clock on the wall
The Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English lists two more (again, with its examples):
- complement of adjectives: I’m not afraid of anything.
- premodifier of nouns: It probably fell out of the sky after an in-flight explosion.
But that refers to the prepositional phrase’s function. What we want to make parallel is the form, or structure. In other words, we want to match prepositional phrases with prepositional phrases and adverbs to adverbs, not the function they perform in the sentence. White’s sentence pairs an adverb with a prepositional phrase, so it’s not truly parallel.
As I’ve noted, though, this faulty parallelism is a small error. DEU calls it a “venial” sin, and I agree. Fixing faulty parallelism is only the beginning of copyediting. We must consider context and esthetics, as well. To do otherwise is to do the author and the readers a disservice.
Note: There will be no Tip on July 1. It will return on July 8.