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Faulty Parallelism

Faulty Parallelism

When we use a coordinating conjunction to join two or more elements of the same type, those elements are said to be parallel with each other. When we mistakenly join two or more elements together with a coordi­nating conjunction but the elements are not of the same grammatical cat­egory, then we have made an error called faulty parallelism. By far the most common type of faulty parallelism involves nonparallel verb forms. For example:

X A standard formula for a speech is beginning with a joke and to end with a summary.

The problem with this sentence is that the writer has made a gerund (an -ing verb form) parallel with an infinitive, as we can see when we arrange them separately:

X A standard formula for a speech is beginning with a joke (gerund)

and to end with a summary.

(infinitive)

To correct the faulty parallelism, we must make both verb forms the same: either both gerunds or both infinitives:

A standard formula for a speech is and A standard formula for a speech is and

beginning with a joke (gerund) ending with a summary. (gerund) to begin with a joke (infinitive) to end with a summary. (infinitive)

Stacking the parallel elements one on top of the other is a simple technique for making it visually obvious whether the elements that are supposed to be parallel are actually parallel. Another advantage of what we might call “parallelism stack” is that it makes it clear what exactly the parallel elements are. For example, there is another way to make the verbs in the example parallel:

A standard formula for a speech is to begin with a joke (base form) and end with a summary. (base form)

Now the parallel elements are the base-form verbs that follow the to of the infinitive. This somewhat more sophisticated form of parallelism is hard to see at first without the parallelism stack.

Probably the most common situation in which faulty parallelism is likely to occur is with a series of three (or more) infinitives. For example:

X I need to take the garbage out, check the mail, and to bring in the paper.

When we arrange the supposedly parallel infinitives in a parallelism stack, we can see the problem more easily:

X I need to take the garbage out, check the mail, and to bring in the paper.

The writer has been inconsistent about what the parallel elements are. The first two elements are parallel base-form verbs that share a common to:

I need to take the garbage out, check the mail,

The problem is with the third element, to bring in the paper. The writer has forgotten that the parallel elements are base-form verbs, not infini­tives. One solution, of course, is either to make all of the parallel elements infinitives:

I need to take the garbage out, to check the mail, and to bring in the paper,

The other obvious solution is to make all of the parallel elements base- form verbs with a shared to:

I need to take the garbage out, check the mail, and bring in the paper.

Some more examples of faulty parallelism follow, but the errors here are more subtle and can not be easily explained without using the paral­lelism stack.

It is easy to make parallelism errors with clauses that are joined by cor­relative conjunctions. (Correlative conjunctions are two-part conjunc­tions such as either. .. or and not only. .. but also.) Here is an example:

X Jayne would either campaign for the governor or the senator.

The parallelism stack shows that the elements made parallel by the con­junctions are not really the same thing:

X Jayne would either campaign for the governor or the senator.

The problem is that the first element, campaign for the governor, is a verb phrase, while the second element, the senator, is a noun phrase.

Once we see what the problem is, we can find several ways to fix it. For example, we can make parallel verb phrases:

Jayne would either campaign for the governor or campaign for the senator.

We can also make parallel noun phrases:

Jayne would campaign for either the governor or the senator.

We can make parallel prepositional phrases:

Jayne would campaign either for the governor or for the senator.

Any of these solutions is fine; the real challenge is seeing the faulty paral­lelism to begin with.

If we begin a sentence with a correlative conjunction, then we are com­mitted to making two complete clauses parallel. Here is an example of what can go wrong when we do not:

X Not only did John reject their offer, but criticized their CEO as well.

The parallelism stack shows us the problem:

X Not only did John reject their offer, but criticized their CEO as well.

The first element is a complete clause with a subject and verb, while the second element is only a verb phrase (no subject). To correct the error, we need to make the second element a complete sentence:

Not only did John reject their offer,

but he criticized their CEO as well.

You can see how the complexity of the grammar required by the correlative conjunction makes it difficult to monitor for correct parallelism.

Sometimes what counts as faulty parallelism is surprising. For instance, when we use a string of three or more noun phrases, the first two noun phrases establish a pattern of modification; if that pattern is then broken by subsequent noun phrases, the result is faulty parallelism. For example:

X Sue always takes her briefcase,

her cell phone, and Blackberry to the office.

The first two noun phrases set the pattern of her + noun, which the third noun phrase breaks. One repair option is to repeat the her in the third noun phrase:

Sue always takes her briefcase,her cell phone, andher Blackberry to the office,

Or we can make the parallel elements nouns with the her shared:

Sue always takes her briefcase,

cell phone, and Blackberry to the office.

Faulty parallelism is a problem of sophistication. If we use only short, simple sentences, we can avoid trouble. When we attempt to express more complex relationships, we need to exploit complex grammatical relation­ships such as parallelism.

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