Three Reasons to Fix Faulty Parallelism and One to Leave It
This semester I’ve been teaching Copyediting II in an online certificate program. The middle of three core courses, Copyediting II focuses on what Amy Einsohn calls language editing—grammar, usage, syntax, and diction. During the lesson on parallelism, one student asked about when copyeditors should edit for parallelism. “What criteria require restructuring the whole sentence?” she asked.
Proper parallelism is considered part of a good writing style. It smooths out awkwardness and clarifies meaning. Witness this example from Right, Wrong, and Risky:
The girl was an accomplished athlete and smart.
Hear that clunk? The sentence pairs a noun (athlete) with an adjective (smart). We naturally expect a noun to be paired with another noun, like to like. When it’s not, we cringe, if only momentarily.
In general, copyeditors should fix faulty parallelism. Keep your eyes peeled for the following:
- Ambiguity. Faulty parallelism can produce ambiguity; fixing it helps with clarity. With this DailyWritingTips example, We often pay more attention to them than our own children, we wonder whether our children pay more attention to them than we do or whether we pay less attention to our children than we pay to them. Include more of the phrase to clarify: We often pay more attention to them than to our own children or We often pay more attention to them than our own children do.
- Awkwardness. As we saw above, a lack of rhythm takes the reader out of the text. Smooth out the speed bump, and readers will stay on track.
- Style. Consistently observing parallelism over the course of a manuscript—that is, ensuring all faulty parallelism is fixed—multiplies the effect of fixing one sentence, creating smoothness over the entire manuscript.
However, as Einsohn observes in her book, a relaxed approach to parallelism in complex sentences is acceptable. Such examples of faulty parallelism can be nearly invisible, and trying to fix them can lead to ruining the rhythm of the sentence. How much fiddling is really necessary?
Here’s an example that Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage (DEU) highlights:
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”
For those who miss them (most of us, I suspect), the “flaws” are:
- 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.
The meaning, though, is clear. The rhythm is smooth. To fix the sentence is to destroy it.
Once you become attuned to these errors, you’ll likely see them everywhere. They’re small problems, by most accounts. “Venial sins,” DEU calls them. Especially in a triage situation, you can let them go. Says DEU, “They are not ornaments or nice turns of phrases to be imitated. We think you should try to avoid them in your writing. But if you slip, no one may notice.”