Parallel ProblemsPHILIP B. CORBETTNotes from the newsroom on grammar, usage and style. (Some frequently asked questions are here.)
Bryan A. Garner, in his Modern American Usage, describes parallelism as “the matching of sentence parts for logical balance,” and says it helps satisfy readers’ “innate craving for order and rhythm.”
Lack of parallelism, on the other hand, is like an uneven sidewalk that makes a hurrying reader stumble awkwardly and occasionally crash to the ground.
Several recent variations on the problem:
Dr. deGravelle’s clinic notes say Kyle was hyperactive, prone to tantrums, spoke only three words and “does not interact well with strangers.’’
This, as Garner notes, is one of the most common parallelism problems — “mixing phrases and clauses by introducing a verb late in the game.”
In this case, after the verb “was,” we started what appeared to be a list of parallel adjectives — “hyperactive, prone [to tantrums] …” But then we abruptly switched gears, introducing two new verbs. Perhaps the simplest fix is to use “and” instead of a comma after “hyperactive.” That would make “was hyperactive and prone to tantrums” the first of three parallel verb phrases.
The problem is compounded by the switch to a present-tense verb in the direct quote at the end. Better to paraphrase to avoid the shift in tenses.
According to the listing, the apartment has four bedrooms, 5,425 square feet of space, and is on the 88th floor.
A similar problem. We seem to start a series of noun phrases, all direct objects of “has” — four bedrooms, 5,425 square feet and … — but then abruptly introduce a new verb, breaking the parallel structure. One solution would be to put “and” instead of the comma after “bedrooms.”
“I really didn’t know what I was walking into,” Jim Millstein says about taking one of the biggest jobs of his life: unraveling the taxpayers’ bailout — er, investment — in the American International Group.
Another common problem. If a prepositional phrase modifies two different nouns, the preposition has to work with both, or we need to supply separate prepositions. Here, it’s right to say “investment in,” but not “bailout in.” We needed “bailout of,” or we needed to rephrase.
Add in the competitive political environment, with Republicans ascendant, the Obama administration struggling to break the perception that it is hostile to business, and the resulting stew is potent.
Here, it seems, we simply didn’t have a third element for the series. We needed “and” after “ascendant,” and perhaps dashes to set those two elements off.
F. Scott Fitzgerald wouldn’t have found it hard to understand why the beautiful and damned flocked to Bernard’s large estate, often eager to toil in the most menial tasks. Like Bikram of Beverly Hills, the owner of many Rolls-Royces and Rolexes, and whose client list includes Madonna and Britney Spears, Bernard was especially lucky with his patrons, keeping one of the more flush Vanderbilts on tap for decades.
A different problem here. The two elements describing Bikram are not grammatically parallel, so they should not be linked by the coordinating conjunction “and.” There’s an appositive (“the owner of many …”) and a relative clause (“whose client list includes …”); we can simply delete “and.”