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How to Use Parallel Construction Correctly

Are you guilty of creating a false series?

By
Rob Reinalda, Writing for
Episode #180
false series

This week, Rob Reinalda is going to help us look at something called a false series. You may ask, “What the heck is that?” We’ll find out in a moment.

A Parallel Construction Problem: the False Series

A common problem in writing today is the false series. It happens when a writer combines three or more seemingly related elements in a series, but the syntax is wrong. When you get the sentence right, you're said to be using parallel construction.

Huh?

OK, here’s an example: “Today I will tidy up the bedroom, the living room, and wallpaper the cat.”

Sounds like a series of three things to accomplish. And yet, there’s something off. The construction doesn’t quite work. It’s as simple to detect as Sesame Street’s “One of these things is not like the other.”

Let’s break it down to see how and why. 

A Proper Series

In a series, we list three (or more) things that serve a common purpose within a sentence: “I’m going out to buy an anvil, a lava lamp, and three dozen kumquats.” Each of the elements, despite their being disparate items, performs the same function, that of the object of the verb form “will buy.” I will buy an anvil. I will buy a lava lamp. I will buy three dozen kumquats. You could bullet-point them, if you so chose.

Similarly, in the sentence, “A koala, a giraffe, and a llama walk into a bar,” each of the three serves as the subject of the verb “walk.” (The punch line, if you care is, “The bartender says, ‘What is this? A joke?’” But we digress.)

A False Series

In the original example, “Today I will tidy up the bedroom, the living room, and wallpaper the cat,” such is not the case; there's a disconnect.

Today I will tidy up:

(a)    the bedroom

(b)   the living room

(c)    wallpaper the cat.

Today I will tidy up wallpaper the cat? Hmmm. Unless the cat’s name is Wallpaper and she needs some grooming, it doesn’t work.

Nor does the following:

Today I will:

(a)    tidy up the bedroom

(b)   the living room

(c)    wallpaper the cat.

In this case, you’d end up with the following: I will the living room. Wow. That feels kind of like hitting the floor thinking there’s one extra step as you descend a staircase.

The Fix

So here’s this week’s quick and dirty tip for handling a series, and it’s a common theme when dealing with multiple elements: break down the components, and make sure they work individually before combining them.

This is how the corrected sentence might read: Today I will tidy up the bedroom, neaten the living room, and wallpaper the cat.

Adding the verb “neaten” before “the living room” makes the construction parallel after “I will.”

Every bit as clear and a bit more concise would be to eliminate the series altogether: Today I will tidy up the bedroom and the living room and wallpaper the cat. The words “the bedroom” and “the living room” become the objects of the verb “tidy, and then “wallpaper” becomes the second verb in the sentence, and “the cat” is its object: today I will tidy up the bedroom and the living room and wallpaper the cat.

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Disclaimer

Note: no actual cats were wallpapered during the making of this podcast.

Ragan.com

This podcast was written by Rob Reinalda, executive editor for Ragan Communications (@word_czar on Twitter), and I'm Mignon Fogarty, the author of the paperback book Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing, and I'm @grammargirl on Twitter.

 

About the Author

Rob Reinalda, Writing for Grammar Girl

Rob Reinalda, winner of ACES' 2019 Robinson Prize for excellence in editing, is the founder and principal of Word Czar Media. As executive editor for Ragan Communications, he writes its popular Brighter Writer column.

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