Wait. Did that header just say “writing” and “parallelism”? Are they combining English and Math? I’m OUT!
No, don’t worry! We’re not about to start graphing sentences on a coordinate plane; we’re just going to examine one of those nit-picky grammar concepts that you never really learned in school and that the SAT suddenly expects you to know (that’s more fun, right?).
Parallelism in language occurs when two verbal constructions share a grammatical structure. In more pure cases of parallelism, phrases may also have corresponding meter, meaning, or sound and can be used as a poetic device. The immortal opening lines of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities illustrate parallelism wonderfully:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times….”
Here, Dickens uses parallelism by making a claim and then asserting an antithetical claim immediately after by changing only one word in the phrase. By doing so, Dickens ultimately stresses that these are times paradoxically full of polar extremes. Not all cases of parallelism are quite so exact:
“I’ll give my jewels for a set of beads,
My gorgeous palace for a hermitage,
My gay apparel for an almsman’s gown,
My figured goblets for a dish of wood,”
In this excerpt from Shakespeare’s Richard II (Act III Scene iii), Richard laments his fall from grace by listing what sacrifices he will make in a parallel fashion (#FirstWorldProblems). Do you need to be a poet for the SAT? No. But you do need to be able to apply this concept to every day English, which you do—every day.
There are plenty of common parallel structures that just don’t sound right without parallelism. For example, when you’re running down your to-do list you wouldn’t say, “I need to go to the store, to study for the SAT, and walking the dog.” Although the infinitive form of a verb (to verb) and the gerund (verbing) could both be used in listing activities, we never mix the two because then our list wouldn’t be parallel. Even if you didn’t know “parallelism” could be a linguistic term before reading this post, your brain still seeks out parallelism in English because it makes information easier to process by expressing concepts in like terms.
Pro Tip: Comparisons, lists, and common parallel structures (“not only____ but also ____,” “both ____ and ____,” etc.) all require parallelism. Example:
Sweet potatoes baked in an oven are sweeter than cooking them in a microwave, because the sugar in a sweet potato needs the longer cooking time to develop.
As written, this sentence probably sounds clunky to most English speakers, but how exactly it should be fixed might still remain a puzzle. When we make a comparison, however, it is important that we compare like terms, not only in terms of content, but also in terms of grammatical structure. In this example, “X are sweeter than Y,” our “X,” (Sweet potatoes baked in an oven) is constructed with a noun followed by a past participle phrase (verb + ed) functioning as an adjective (“baked in the oven” is used to describe the noun “sweet potatoes”). Our “Y,” however, is made up of a gerund phrase, “cooking them,” followed by a prepositional phrase functioning as an adverbial of time or place, “in the microwave.” Grammar speak aside, this mistake causes our focus to shift from the sweet potatoes themselves to the actual act of cooking them. Therefore, we want to look for an option with a noun followed by the past participle “cooked”, which, when combined with “in a microwave” will parallel the phrase “baked in an oven.” Let’s look at our choices, and try to keep your mind on those tasty sweet potatoes:
you cook them
C) if they
E) those cooked
The correct answer is E. Answers A and B both use the wrong form of the verb. Answer C uses the past participle “cooked,” but combines it with “if” and a “to be” verb to form a conditional clause, which we don’t want. D, again, uses the correct form of the verb, but the conjunction “when” is not grammatically equivalent to the noun “sweet potatoes.” E replaces “sweet potatoes” with the nominative pronoun “those” and correctly uses the past participle.
A lack of parallelism may not be immediately apparent, but answer choices that exhibit parallelism should seem more clear and predictable. If you’re still not sold on parallelism, think about it like this: would we remember Kennedy’s inaugural address if he had said, “Ask not what your country can do for you–instead, question what you could be doing in service of your country”?
Nope. Probably not.