What is Parallelism?

Parallelism is a literary device which consists in the presentation of several ideas of equal importance by putting each of them into the same kind of grammatical structure. In parallelism, each of the ideas is ordered or phrased in similar grammatical style.

Observe this practical example:
  • To think carefully and to write accurately are interrelated goals.
    In this example, the sentence carries two subjects, built in the same grammatical style that contains two infinitives, to think and to write; each with an adverb, carefully and accurately. Thus, to think carefully is paralleled with to write accurately. Compare that sentence to the next sentence below, which presents the same ideas but which does not contain parallelism:

  • To think carefully and accurate writing are interrelated goals.

One definition of parallelism is “recurrent structural similarity,” and as the word similarity implies, there is some latitude. Note also that paralleling rather long subordinate clauses helps the reader hold the entire sentence more easily and clearly in mind. Thus, parallelism is an important device for effective writing. It is so important for clarity Opens in new window that a writing devoid of parallelism is usually considered a poor writing. Compare the following sentences:

Example I
Parallelism broken
  • Gretchen enjoyed seeing the movie more than popcorn.
Rephrased for parallelism
  • Gretchen enjoyed seeing the movie more than eating popcorn.
Example II
Parallelism broken
  • The mechanic applied extra force to the bolt so that it would seat properly and he wanted it to be sufficiently tight.
Rephrased for parallelism
  • The mechanic applied extra force to the bolt so that it would seat properly and tighten sufficiently.

In example II, the particular sentence that is rephrased for parallelism more clearly shows that proper seating and proper tightening are parallel reasons (both following the so that) for the mechanic’s actions.

Parallel prepositional phrases
  • The dropped apple floated down the river and under the bridge.

Any sentence parts may be paralleled twice or more, with the most common case, usually two, three, or four times. The following examples show various elements that can be paralleled.

Example III
Parallel subjects
  • The carefully trimmed trees in the front yard and the spectacularly clean patio in the back revealed the meticulous nature of the home owner.
Example IV
Parallel verbs and adverbs
  • The agency had frequently received but seldom revealed a large number of crank phone calls.
Example V
Parallel objects
  • The doctor carefully examined the heel, the ankle, and the toes.
Example VI
Parallel verbs and objects
  • Mom went to Judy’s room and gave her a drink, pulled up her blanket, and kissed her forehead.

Benefits of Parallelism

If you carefully examine each one of the sentences rephrased for parallelism, in the examples above, you will observe that parallelism provides several benefits such as:

  1. Clarity— Parallelism make sentences easier to understand. Comparing the two sentences above, you will notice, the one with parallelism is easier to understand than that without it because a repeated grammatical structure requires less mental processing than a series different structures.
  2. Rhythm — The notable principle of rhyme which creates association between two or more elements is typical of parallelism, in which the symmetry is structured in manner that thoughts are balanced with similar thoughts. This adds liveliness to the overall reading experience.
  3. Balance — The structures with which a sentence with parallelism is built make it easier for the reader to hold each of the ideas in mind while reading the subsequent ideas.
  4. Elegance — Rendering parallelism appropriately provides brilliant effect to writing that makes it more interesting and readable.

Possibilities of Parallelism

Parallelism is useful for expressing contrasts. This can be achieved by combining some poetic devices particularly antithesis which is specifically employed to form two contrasting thoughts in a parallel structure.

Examples of such possibilities include:
  • 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, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us…
    — Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
  • “Today's students can put dope in their veins or hope in their brains. If they can conceive it and believe it, they can achieve it. They must know it is not their aptitude but their attitude that will determine their altitude.”
  • “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I will learn.”
    — Benjamin Franklin
  • Baking in the summer sun and rusting from the winter rains, the tractor deteriorated a little more each year.
Further Readings:
Robert A Harris: Writing with Clarity and Style: A Guide to Rhetorical Devices for Contemporary WritingOpens in new window
Jewish Encyclopaedia: I. M. Casanowicz; Parallelsism In Hebrew PoetryOpens in new window Example of Parallelism Opens in new window
“The Book of Job: Introduction and Exegesis”, The Interpreter’s Bible, II (New York: Abigdon, 1954) 894a.