Ask Mint | The art of parallelism

Ask Mint | The art of parallelism
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First Published: Sun, Nov 09 2008. 10 20 PM IST

Updated: Sun, Nov 09 2008. 10 20 PM IST
And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” These words still echo down the corridors of history. It is not just the inspiring content that rouses emotions in listeners. It is the patterning of the words that makes them memorable. One part of the utterance is balanced against the other. A negative is counterpoised by an affirmative. After listening to the first half, the listener expects an affirmative to follow. John F. Kennedy fulfils that expectation.
Fifty years later, president-elect Barack Obama opens his victory speech with these words: “If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.” What is common to these two utterances is the balancing of clauses, to express a contrast in the first example and to express a strong conviction by repetition in the second example. Obama leads to a resounding climax after three adjective clauses beginning with “who still”.
Such structures fall under a broad pattern that grammarians call parallelism. Textbooks of grammar deal with this topic at a basic level. They cite certain simple rules. The most elementary of the rules says, items that form part of a list should be expressed in the same pattern. If you have the structure a, b and c, then the three elements should be of the same pattern. Here is an example of faulty parallelism: “Ram devotes his free time writing poetry, solving crosswords and to draw cartoons.” “To draw” does not go well with the other verbs; you have to use “drawing” as the third verbal form.
Parallelism is also required when you use linking words like “not only/but also”, “both/and”, and “either/or”. Here is another example of faulty parallelism: “Either you must apologise or pay a compensation to the complainant.” If “either” is followed by “you must”, then you have to repeat those words after “or” too. Another way to improve the sentence is to place “either” after “must”.
In longer sentences, the writer may not notice that he has deviated from parallel structure. This is true of sentences made up of clauses or prepositional phrases of several words. Here is an example: “He tried to convince me that my attitude was wrong, that my job might be at risk, and I should think before I act.” There are two clauses beginning with “that” and a third clause without “that”. All the three should begin the same way.
Parallelism is important in professional writing too. A report is likely to have several lists of items. The items in the table of contents should be of the same pattern. Headings in the chapters should be parallel. Above all, instructions should be parallel. If you start your instructions with an imperative, follow that pattern till the end. If you start with the passive voice, use it for all the instructions.
The Bible has examples of parallel construction. Here is a selection from the Sermon on the Mount, comprising thee of the eight Beatitudes: “Blessed are the poor in spirit; for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they that mourn; for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek; for they shall inherit the earth.”
Parallel structure is an excellent tool for aspiring writers. They can select words, phrases, clauses or even sentences for parallel placement. They can craft the sentences deliberately, choosing the right diction and pattern to make the best impression on the reader. In the opening paragraph of (Charles) Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, you find a series of parallel structures, with a touch of the oxymoron. This is how it begins: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness...” The figure of speech called antithesis is a variation of parallel structure. Here two clearly contrasting or irreconcilably opposing ideas are set off against each other?using?a parallel?structure.
(Gilbert Keith) Chesterton was a master of antithesis. Here is a sentence from one of his essays: “An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered.” The best known modern example of parallelism comes not from the earth but from the moon: As the world listened, Neil Armstrong said, ”That’s one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.”
V.R. Narayanaswami, a former professor of English, has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He will look at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column. Comments can be sent to plainspeaking@livemint.com
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First Published: Sun, Nov 09 2008. 10 20 PM IST