parallel construction

A Parallel Universe

Sometimes a desired effect will direct the writer to build two or three sentences with the same construction. Through parallelisms, he creates a drum beat of emphasis.


Parallel construction, or parallelism, refers to several sentences or parts of a sentence arranged in complimentary grammatical patterns. The structure may be as simple as listing two or three modifiers in a row to describe the same noun or verb or it may take the form of two or more of the same type of phrases (prepositional, participial, gerund, appositive) that modify the same noun or verb. Parallelism adds balance, rhythm, and clarity to a passage. The repetition of the structure allows the reader to recognize parallel ideas more readily.

Without parallel construction:

Worcester County is a wonderful place for a vacation any time of the year. Mt. Wachusett is available for skiing. Golf courses are easy to find. Several lakes in the area offer fishing opportunities. The foliage in Worcester county is among the most beautiful in the area.

With parallel construction:

Worcester County is a wonderful place for a vacation any time of the year. You can ski in Worcester County. You can golf in Worcester County. You can fish in Worcester County. You can view beautiful foliage in Worcester county.

The parallel construction in the last sentence makes the premise of the first sentence more convincing.

An example of parallel construction from William Zinsser’s On Writing Well

Most writers don’t initially say what they want to say, or say it as well as they could. The newly hatched sentence almost always has something wrong with it. It’s not clear. It’s not logical. It’s verbose. It’s clunky. It’s pretentious. It’s boring. It’s full of clutter. It’s full of clichés. It lacks rhythm. It can be read in several different ways. It doesn’t lead out of the previous sentence. It doesn’t… The point is that clear writing is the result of a lot of tinkering.

The paragraph works. Zinsser’s content teaches, and his approach models good writing. His style even entertains—that is, if you appreciate the written language and thrill to see it masterfully wielded. Notice the simple words and simple sentences. Good writing is not about the lumber with which you build—you don’t need the cedars of Lebanon to erect a solid structure. Good writing is about the tools and learning how to use them.

Because readers hear what they read, rhythm entices their attention and interest. When you choose words and string them together, listen for their sound. Is their sound satisfying?

Before we explore specific types of parallel structures, notice that a break in a parallelism can shine a spotlight of emphasis on the unstructured content to follow. We see this accent in Zinsser’s example. From Bronte’s Jane Eyre

I went to my window, opened it, and looked out. There were two wings of the building; there were the gardens; there were the skirts of Lowood; there was the hilly horizon. My eye passed all other objects to rest on those most remote, the blue peaks…

Parallelism uses repetition artfully and strategically. Most rhetorical devices rely on parallel structure.

Use intentional redundancy on occasion.

Intentional repetition of similar words or sounds can produce excellent and sometimes unexpected effects.

No, I would not bow. No, I would not scrape. No, I would not empty the washbowl. No, I would not sweep the vestibule. No, I would not carry the water bucket on my head. No, I would not chop the master’s wood. No, I would not serve. No, no, and again no because I am not a slave.

Whatever the impression the writer wishes to make, there must be a payoff.


An alliteration is the repetition of the same sound, usually of a consonant, at the beginning of two or more words immediately succeeding each other, or at short intervals, as the repetition of s and k in the following line from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland:

“The time has come,” the walrus said, “to talk of many things: Of shoes and ships—and sealing wax—of cabbages and kings.”

A poignant example is this bit of graffiti found scrawled on a military vehicle in Vietnam:

We are the unwilling, led by the unqualified, doing the unnecessary, for the ungrateful.

The melodic sound satisfies.

In war and peace, Churchill blazed with defiance, stoked by wit and wisdom. —Howard La Fay, “Be Ye Men of Valour,” National Geographic Magazine, Aug. 1965

Alliteration is a devise used for emphasis as well as art. Alliteration draws attention to a phrase, sometimes fixing sentiment in the reader’s mind, sometimes—as Churchill and Lincoln proved—fixing cause in readers’ hearts.

Listen to your writing and learn when to use repetition and when to avoid it. Alliteration is a rhetorical device that emphasizes and makes memorable a statement.

Were there is much desire to learn, there of necessity will be much arguing, much writing, many opinions; for opinion in good men is but knowledge in the making. —John Milton, Aeropagitica

Progress is not proclamation nor palaver. It is not pretense nor play on prejudice. It is not perturbation of a people passion-wrought nor a promise proposed. —Warren G. Harding

Promoting the use of a thesaurus to young writers, William Zinsser has fun with alliteration—

You’ll find ruffians and riffraff, miscreants and malefactors, reprobates and rapscallions, hooligans and hoodlums, scamps and scapegraces, scoundrels and scalawags, jezebels and jades. You’ll find adjectives to fit them all (foul and fiendish, devilish and diabolical), and adverbs and verbs to describe how the wrongdoers do their wrong, and cross-references leading to still other thickets of venality and vice. Still, there’s no better friend to have around to nudge the memory than Roget.

Overused or employed without intent, alliteration can sour a passage. If the emphasis that alliteration delivers isn’t necessary or appropriate, your passage will sound maudlin, hokey and perhaps ignorant. Like all devices, you’ll grow accustomed to alliteration and its uses with practice. As you listen to your writing voice, your ear will develop.

The payroll plans are prepared on punched cards each pay period for each person.

The statement becomes an offbeat tongue-twister clanging randomly in the reader’s head. While alliteration as a rhetorical device purposely accents words or phrases, diversity is the mainstay of good writing.


An alliteration that repeats the same consonant sounds without repeating the vowel sound.

All things counter, original, spare, strange…—Hopkins, Pied Beauty


Like consonance, assonance employs the repetition of vowels sounds, usually internally rather than initially.

Her goodly eyes like sapphires shining bright. —Edmund Spencer, The Faery Queen

A city set on a hill cannot be hid.—Matthew


Another form of repetition is anaphora. This literary device employs the repetition of the same word or words at the beginning of successive phrases, clauses, or sentences with a rhythm of crescendo for climatic emphasis.

Renown for oration metered by anaphora, Winston Churchill had mastered its persuasive power.

You ask, What is our aim? I can answer in one word: Victory—victory at all costs, victory in spite of terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be…  —Winston Churchill

We shall not flag or fail. We shall go one to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, 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. —Winston Churchill

Dickens opened The Tale of Two Cities with anaphora; subsequently, it’s familiar even to those who never read the book.

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, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Questions, contingencies or negations, stacked one on top of another, can work the effects of anaphora—

Where do you run when circumstances look hopeless? When failure mocks you and your mistakes reap havoc? Where do you turn when your dreams collapse, and sorrow and despair flood your soul? When those you’ve trusted betray you and justice refuses to defend you? Where do you go when you feel like you can’t go on?

If all should fail, if your dreams collapse, if your hope should cease to endure…

Not by power, not by might…


Using the same word to refer to the same thing or idea is desirable when it contributes to transition and coherence. Anadiplosis is a rhetorical trope formed by repeating the last word of one phrase, clause, or sentence at or near the beginning of the next.

Some examples of anadiplosis—

So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ. —Romans 10:17

They have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed them out of cisterns, broken cisterns that can hold no water. —Jeremiah 2:13

But if possibility of evil be to exclude good, no good ever can be done. —Samuel Johnson

Used in a series, anadiplosis imbues beauty or a sense of logical progression.

And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulations bring about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint… —Romans 5:3-5

Reminder: Unless you choose a rhetorical device for its effect, avoid unnecessary repetition. Repeating the same word can become awkward, tedious, or confusing. Alternating between a pronoun and its antecedent is one obvious way of avoiding the tedious repetition of the same word to refer to the same thing. You can usually help to avoid confusing your readers by not using the same word (or variations of the same word) to mean two different things in one sentence or in two closely related sentences.


The term epistrophe refers to the repetition of the same word or phrase at the end of successive clauses.

In 1931, ten years ago, Japan invaded Manchukuo—without warning. In 1935, Italy invaded Ethiopia—without warning. In 1938, Hitler occupied Austria—without warning. In 1939, Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia—without warning. Later in 1939, Hitler invaded Poland—without warning. And now Japan has attacked Malaya and Thailand—and the United States—without warning. —Franklin D. Roosevelt


The rhetorical devise, chiasmus, reverses the order of repeated words or phrases (AB—BA) to intensify the final formulation, to present alternatives, or to show contrast.

Mankind must put an end to war—or war will put an end to mankind. —John F. Kennedy

The Negro needs the white man to free him from his fears. The white man needs the Negro to free him from his guilt. —Martin Luther King, Jr.

(Some novels build on a chiasmic structure, such as Homer’s Odyssey and James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.)


Another device rooted in parallelism is the antithesis, the juxtaposition of contrasting ideas to create a definite and systematic relationship between the two. Antithesis helps to clarify a concept

The following example not only employs the device of antithesis, but further conveys image by alluding to Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities

It is the best of times, yet the worst of times: we live in unparalleled prosperity, yet have starvation; modern science can perform miracles to save lives, yet we have war; we balance ourselves delicately on the moon, yet destroy the delicate balance of the earth. Young people search for meaning in life, yet are confused, demoralized, frustrated. —Jesse E. Hobson and Martin E. Robins, America, Dec. 27, 1969

On a humorous note, Samuel Johnson wrote—

Marriage has many pains, but celibacy has no pleasure. —Samuel Johnson

Antithesis, through contrast, conveys subtle differences that the reader might otherwise overlook.

In order that all men may be taught to speak the truth, it is necessary that all likewise should learn to hear it. —Samuel Johnson


Paradox, a contradictory statement that contains a measure of truth, differs from antithesis. Paradox combines opposites for the meaning of the whole, whereas antithesis distinguishes of two parts by through contrast.

For whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake shall find it. —Matthew 16:25

Art is a form of lying in order to tell the truth. —Pablo Picasso


An oxymoron links two terms typically exclusive by contrast.

…sober intoxication  —St. Augustine

Why then, O brawling love! O loving hate!

O any thing! Of nothing first create.

O heavy lightness! serious vanity!

Mishapen chaos of well-seeming forms!

Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health!

Still-waking sleep, that is not what it is!

This love feel I, that feel no love in this.

Dost thou not laugh? —Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare

For more rhetorical devices, see the appendix entry.

Written by The UnNovelist
The Unnovelist