Grammar Guide: Parallelism

Hints and resources for grammar remediation that won't leave you bogged down in jargon.

By Elijah Ammen

Eliminating grammar errors

This is part five of a six-part series that focuses on various grammar topics. Check the Lesson Planet Community each Wednesday for the next installment.

Maybe it's just the fine state of Tennessee, but it seems as if test makers love parallelism. It doesn't just make a cursory appearance, but shows up multiple times, like a prima donna coming back for more bows after the audience has already stopped clapping. We get it, parallelism is important, but it seems like a second-tier skill when I have children who ask me, "Is we takin' a test today?"

But when you think about it, we often reduce parallelism to basic lists, specifically gerunds. We talk about walking, talking, and driving rather than walking, talked, and to drive. While this is the most glaring occurrence of parallelism, it's not the only form. Parallelism exists in all forms of speech, and needs to be understood as a concept rather than a quick fix just for lists.

Here are the key points to remember when teaching parallelism. This is by no means an exhaustive grammar resource, or even an outline for how to teach the concepts for the first time. Here, you'll find hints for the teaching most important information and resources for instruction and remediation. These are great resources for pull-out teachers or for bellringers and mini-lessons.

Helpful Hints

Verb Tenses: You can find a lot of resources on verb tenses. We already did a grammar guide on verb tenses. You can also relate parallelism to grammar principles like subject-verb agreement. Verbs and verbals are the most common errors with parallelism, because switches in verb tense make them unequal. Train your class to identify different clauses and compare the verbs to see if they are similar. If you jog, ran, and are climbing, it's not parallel or equal like jogged, ran, and climbed. 

Parallelism in Parts of Speech: As important as verb tenses are for this subject, parallelism is found across many parts of speech. Consider the following:

  • Nouns: I had to make a decision to buy an American, Chinese, or Hungarian dragon. 
  • Verbs: I ran to the store, bought a steak, and fed my pet dragon.
  • Adjectives: The dragon enjoyed that rare, tasty, and tender steak.
  • Adverbs: The dragon ate the steak ferociously and zestfully
  • Prepositions: He then climbed under the fence, around the porch, and through the house, searching for more. 

Parallelism vs. Sentence Variety: The one criticism I hear about parallelism is that it eliminates variety in sentence structure. When you use parallel forms, your writing tends to include a lot of lists, which become redundant and technical. I had a college professor who once marked my paper down for describing a military conflict as "difficult, intense, and ferocious." While technically correct, he pointed out that I used three words that meant the same thing. You should never use a parallel structure if it does not serve a purpose. A simple way to correct errors in parallelism is to simplify the sentence and eliminate unnecessary components. If you focus on the big picture of communicating your message efficiently, you can bypass many parallelism errors.   

Instructional Resources

The first step is good modeling. Because parallelism spans so many parts of speech, it often looks different. You need to be able to spot the different components and confirm that they are parallel. These presentations not only give clear explanations in a variety of styles, but they give a plethora of sample sentences for you to use when teaching or reviewing the concept.

  • Parallelism Presentation: Use this detailed presentation as review for your class, or to introduce parallelism for the first time. 
  • Rules of Thumb: Use this presentation for higher-level students and allow them to consider parallelism in a variety of situations.
  • Parallelism Video: Check out this thorough animated video that explains parallelism and why it is valuable in writing.
  • Bare Bones: Looking for a quick, no-frills presentation? Look no further. 
  • Sentence Clarity: Check out this presentation on parallelism, which also covers how to correct passive voice and misused modifiers. 

Remediation Resources

Parallelism takes practice. Over and over and over. Because of the casual way we talk, parallelism mistakes often go unnoticed. They slip by the "read aloud" test because errors often sound conversational. It's important that writers can look at a sentence, break it down, and have noticed when the parallelism is off. (Bonus points to you if you noticed the parallelism error in the last sentence.)

  • Practicing Parallelism: Review the definition of parallelism, see some sample sentences, and practice with 10 sentences.
  • Practice, Practice, Practice: The only way to get better at parallelism is through continual practice. Use these 20 questions, or follow the link on the worksheet for an interactive version of the exercise.
  • Parallelism Quiz: Quiz your class with different styles of questions, like fill-in-the-blank and multiple choice so they can get a feel for what the corrections will look like on a standardized test. 
  • Make It Multiple Choice: Twenty multiple-choice questions on parallelism—useful for a summative assessment or prompting lower-level learners who can't make the corrections without prompting. 
  • Contextualize Your Parallelism: Tired of teaching grammar in isolation? Use this short story to teach parallelism through literature. 
  • History Crossover: Get interdisciplinary with the Declaration of Independence. Study the use of parallelism as an intentional literary device to create emphasis. 
  • Get Some Gettysburg: In similar fashion to the above lesson on the Declaration of Independence, you can use other famous speeches such as the "Gettysburg Address" to teach parallel structure in speeches and discuss why parallelism improves the cadence of a speech.
  • Choosing Correctly: Eliminate incorrect answers by choosing the correct answer out of several incorrect modifications.