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Parallel Structure: Patterns Are Pleasing

Our brains are wired to look for patterns, so you can use parallel structure in your sentences to make your writing more memorable. 

By
Mignon Fogarty
3-minute read
Episode #463
parallel structure

The human brain is wired to look for patterns. Patterns like the golden ratio found in art and nature are pleasing to the eye, and patterns in writing can make your words more pleasing and memorable to your readers.

Speech writers know all about patterns because many common rhetorical devices rely on patterns. Some of the most famous pieces of writing use patterns, and that’s probably one reason we remember them. From Julius Caesar’s “I came, I saw, I conquered,” to Martin Luther King Junior’s “I have a dream” speech, patterns helped deliver a strong message.:

“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, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair . . .”

By following each clause with one that is its opposite (best/worst, wisdom/foolishness, etc.), Dickens is also using a rhetorical device called antithesis.

Winston Churchill used the same method of starting each clause with the same words (sometimes called anaphora) in one of his famous speeches from World War II:

“. . . we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender.”

Note how similar each clause is. With Dickens, each clause starts with “it was the…” With Churchill, each clause starts with “we shall…” Another word for this kind of pattern is parallelism.

You may not be writing a novel or writing a speech to rouse an entire country, and you may not always want to use heavy hitters such as anaphora and antithesis, but you should still embrace parallelism whenever possible, not only because it makes your writing powerful and memorable, but also because when it’s missing, many readers will get a vague sense that something is wrong. They’ll stumble over your writing because, as noted earlier, the human brain homes in on patterns like pigeon. We see them when they aren’t even there, so we’ll be expecting sentences to follow a pattern, almost filling in the blanks before we even get to them.

Take this sentence, for example:

Kids these days are obsessed with taking pictures of themselves, hanging out with friends, and check Instagram to see if anyone liked their posts. 

I stumble when I get to “check” because it’s not parallel. I expect to read “checking…” We have the gerunds taking pictures and hanging out, but then the sentence switches to a verb: check. You can easily make that sentence better by replacing “check” with a gerund: 

Kids these days are obsessed with taking pictures of themselves, hanging out with their friends, and checking Instagram to see if anyone liked their posts. 

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About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show.

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