What Is Parallelism? Examples and Uses

Perhaps you’re giving a speech. Perhaps you’re writing an essay. Perhaps you’re delivering a report. Whatever you’re working on, one way to add structure and impact to your writing is to include parallelisms. 

What Is Parallelism?

The Cambridge Dictionary defines parallelism as “the use of matching sentence structure, phrases, or longer parts so as to balance ideas of equal importance.”

The term parallelism is derived from the word parallel, which in mathematics refers to lines that are side by side and aligned. In writing, parallel refers more to balance and repetition. 

For example, check out the top of this article. It begins with three sentences that repeat the same structure:

  • “Perhaps you’re giving a speech. Perhaps you’re writing an essay. Perhaps you’re delivering a report.”

See the repeated elements? We can break it down like this:

  • “Perhaps you’re verb-ing a noun. Perhaps you’re verb-ing a noun. Perhaps you’re verb-ing a noun.”

These sentences are said to be parallel because they repeat the same grammatical structure. They also all begin with the same two words—“perhaps you’re”—but parallelisms don’t always have to repeat the same words, just the same structure.

Furthermore, parallelisms can happen within a sentence as well. Take a look at this example:

  • “I walked up the mountain, sat on the peak, and gazed at the stars.”

Here, the parallel structure of the phrases all go in one sentence, and no words are repeated (besides the).

Using Parallelism Correctly

Parallelism can be tricky at first. It’s easy to write a so-called “false” or “faulty” parallel, where a repeated structure is first set up in a couple of phrases but then broken. Let’s look at some examples.

Mixing up Verb Forms

One way to ruin a parallelism is by mixing up your verb forms.

  • Faulty parallel: “Betty likes cooking, baking, and to sew.”

Notice how the two gerunds (-ing verbs), “cooking” and “baking,” are not followed by another gerund but with an infinitive, “to sew.”

So how do we fix this? Well, we’ve got a couple options. Check this out:

  • Correct parallelism: “Betty likes cooking, baking, and sewing.”
  • Correct parallelism: “Betty likes to cook, bake, and sew.”

Mixing up Parts of Speech

Another faulty parallelism can occur when we mismatch parts of speech, like nouns and verbs. For example:

  • Faulty parallelism: “For breakfast I like bacon and to scramble eggs.”

Yes, bacon and eggs are both nouns, but “to scramble” is a verb. Here’s a couple ways we could fix this:

  • Correct parallelism: “For breakfast I like fried bacon and scrambled eggs.”
  • Correct parallelism: “For breakfast I like to fry bacon and to scramble eggs.”

Remember to make sure your structures are the same, and your parallelisms will be properly balanced.

Examples of Parallelism

Below are some examples from common sayings, literature, music, and speeches.

Parallelisms in Common Sayings

  • “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.”
  • “What you see is what you get.”
  • “You play stupid games, you win stupid prizes.”

Parallelisms in Literature

  • “As Caesar loved me, I weep for him; as he was fortunate, I rejoice at it; as he was valiant, I honour him; but, as he was ambitious, I slew him.”
    —Brutus in Julius Caesar, William Shakespeare
  • “I am a sick man. I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man.” 
    —Dostoevsky, Notes from the Underground
  • “Spears shall be shaken, shields shall be splintered.”
    —King Theoden in The Lord of The Rings, J.R.R. Tolkein

Parallelisms in Music

  • “His hands are in my hair;
    His clothes are in my room.”
    —Taylor Swift, “Wildest Dreams”
  • “Every breath you take,
    Every move you make,
    Every bond you break,
    Every step you take…”
    —The Police, “Every Breath You Take”
  • Don’t go wasting your emotion—
    Lay all your love on me.
    Don’t go sharing your devotion—
    Lay all your love on me.”
    —Abba, “Lay All Your Love on Me”

Parallelism in Speeches

In the examples below, the parallel phrases are underlined. 

  • “…they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
    — MLK Jr.
  • “But in a larger sense we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground.”
    —Abraham Lincoln
  • “My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life, to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.”
    —Ted Kennedy

Parallelisms are powerful, popular tools, and once you know what they are, you’ll see and hear them everywhere. Consider adding parallelisms to your writing to increase structure, improve clarity, and enhance expressivity. (See what I did there?)

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