Parallelism, or parallel structure, describes a type of sentence structure common in the English language. When poets and prose stylists effectively employ grammatical parallelism, they strengthen the connections between ideas and objects, embedding relationships in syntax.
It might seem silly to write an entire article on a singular sentence structure. Writing parallelism certainly isn’t difficult, nor is it rare—you probably employ it all the time in your writing, whether you realize it or not.
But, when we turn towards some parallelism examples in literature, you’ll see how this simple syntactical device can transform your writing.
So, what is parallelism in literature? This article examines different types of parallelism in poetry and in prose, with examples throughout the literary canon, as well as in speech and rhetoric. We will also look at common grammatical mistakes, such as faulty parallelism, with an eye towards sharpening your writing.
But first, let’s define this important idea in syntax. What is parallelism in literature?
Parallelism Definition: What is Parallelism in Literature?
A parallel sentence structure occurs when a sentence’s components—phrases and clauses—each have the same grammatical structure. In other words, parallelism occurs when a sentence’s components are grammatically alike.
Parallelism is a sentence whose components—phrases and clauses—each have the same grammatical structure.
Here’s a simple example: On Sunday, we walked through the park, ate fried pickles, and saw a Broadway show.
There are three clauses with parallel structure here:
- walked through the park,
- ate fried pickles,
- saw a Broadway show.
“Walked,” “ate,” and “saw” are all past tense verbs, and they start each successive clause in the sentence. So, each clause has the same grammatical structure, giving the sentence parallelism.
What Parallelism Isn’t: Unparallel Structures and Faulty Parallelism
Here are some examples of unparallel sentences (also called faulty parallelism):
- Different verb tenses: We walked through the park, ate fried pickles, and see a Broadway show.
- Different parts of speech: We walked through the park, ate fried pickles, and each of us are 24 years old.
- Different point of view: We walked through the park, ate fried pickles, and you saw a Broadway show.
- Different number: We walked through the park, I ate fried pickles, and we saw a Broadway show.
Each of these sentences are unpleasant in different ways. If the information is correct—for example, if I was the only one who ate fried pickles—then that unparallel clause can be relegated to its own sentence.
This applies to other parts of speech too, not just verbs. A common writing mistake is misnumbered nouns and adjectives. For example:
- Unparallel structure: The city plans to increase the frequency of trains and a bus.
- Parallel structure: The city plans to increase the frequency of trains and buses.
The following example pertains to mismatched subject matter:
- Unparallel structure: She thought about doing her taxes, breaking up with her partner, and ordering pizza.
- Parallel structure: She thought about doing her taxes, breaking up with her partner, and treating herself afterwards with pizza.
The first sentence isn’t wrong, but the items in the list are weirdly juxtaposed. There’s a lack of cause and effect, so the sentence is treating each item in the list with equal weight—but taxes and break-ups are a lot less jovial than pizza. This abrupt juxtaposition could be what you’re going for, if you’re writing humor. If not, the second sentence reads more “normally” by retaining the parallel sentence structure.
Finally, there’s such a thing as stylistic structure. The following examples are both technically parallelisms, but one is clearly superior to the other:
- I came, I saw, I conquered.
- I came, I saw, I defeated the enemies.
The first example of parallelism is far better: it omits needless words, preserves the cadence of the sentence, and feels much more pleasurable to read. Parallel structure, as you can see, helps hone style in writing.
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Types of Parallelism in Literature
The examples we gave in the “Parallelism Definition” section all pertain to sentences with listed components. But, in rhetoric and literature, there are a few types of parallelism that amplify specific ideas using syntax. Let’s examine each one briefly, with parallelism examples in literature and speech.
1. Rhetorical Parallelism
Rhetorical parallelism creates sentence components of equal weight to emphasize similarity and contrast. Typically, it’s a sentence with 2 or 3 components, each of which are written with similar or parallel syntactic structure. You see this type of structure operate in some similes, metaphors, and analogies—especially analogies.
Here’s an example of rhetorical parallelism:
- “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” —Neil Armstrong
Each component of the sentence follows a parallel structure: one [adjective of size] [movement] for [man / mankind]. Because some of the words stay the same, this sentence highlights those that change: the size of the step grows in tandem with the size of the impact on humanity. Expressed here is the elegance of rhetorical parallelism: how small changes in word choice produce large effects in meaning.
Here are some other rhetorical parallelism examples:
- “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” —John F. Kennedy
- “Falseness lasts an hour, and truth lasts till the end of time.” —Arabic Proverb
- 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 (III.ii) by William Shakespeare
Rhetorical parallelism often relies on effective repetition. You can learn more about wielding repetition in rhetoric at this article:
2. Synthetic Parallelism
The following are primarily examples of parallelism in the Bible. Antithetical, synonymous, and synthetic parallelism are all common features of ancient poetry, particularly Hebrew poetry, though of course these devices can be used in modern poetry, too.
Synthetic parallelism is a poetic structure that advances a thought. It presents ideas of equal weight to make a certain argument, usually a moral one.
Here’s an example, from Proverbs 21:27.
“The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination;
how much more when he brings it with evil intent.”
In this quote, the two elements—“the sacrifice of the wicked” and “brings it with evil intent”—are both immoral actions. By placing these ideas next to each other, the quote amplifies its idea by amplifying what’s immoral.
You may notice how the two ideas have different syntactic structures. This is partially because the translation from Hebrew to English is difficult, and partially because it matters more that each idea takes up a similar amount of space on each singular line.
Proverbs is a book about proper conduct in the world, as well as the thoughts behind the ways we conduct ourselves. Synthetic parallelism allows this quote to elegantly express both abominable actions and, further, thoughts that make those actions even worse.
3. Antithetical Parallelism
Antithetical parallelism uses the same sentence structure as synthetic, but it highlights differences. Take, for example, Proverbs 19:16.
“He who obeys instructions guards his life,
but he who is contemptuous of his ways will die.”
The two ideas—“obedience” versus “contempt”—are equally weighted, but opposed in such a way that one action is regarded in much higher esteem. “But” is the operant word highlighting contrast, and when it comes to parallelism in the Bible, attention to comparison words helps us understand how different ideas are being compared.
4. Synonymous Parallelism
Synonymous parallelism is simply the repetition of similar ideas with different words. This repetition may appear redundant, but it’s done with the purpose of amplifying an idea and making it multifaceted.
Take the below example, from Psalm 120:2.
“Save me, O Lord, from lying lips
and from deceitful tongues.”
“Lying lips” and “deceitful tongues” are clearly synonymous. Modern readers might find the second line to be wholly unnecessary. What is it expressing that’s different from the first line? The point is not to be redundant, it’s to elucidate and amplify. The repetition of an idea in different words highlights the importance of the idea itself. And, since this quote begins with “save me,” repeating the idea also repeats the idea of needing to be saved—it adds a certain layer of desperation, of lack.
You can also find synthetic, antithetical, and synonymous parallelism throughout Ancient Middle Eastern poetry, including the Quran and among many Sufi poets. Think of these structures as advancing moral arguments. The way that rhetorical parallelism helps us speak to audiences of today, these parallel devices helped speak to the listeners of yesterday (and can still do so today!)
More Parallelism Examples in Literature
Parallelism helps advance big ideas, create surprising juxtapositions, and craft effective styles. Here’s how modern authors have wielded the device in their work. The parallelism examples have been bolded.
Parallelism Examples: “I Know What You Think of Me” by Tim Kreider
Years ago a friend of mine had a dream about a strange invention; a staircase you could descend deep underground, in which you heard recordings of all the things anyone had ever said about you, both good and bad. The catch was, you had to pass through all the worst things people had said before you could get to the highest compliments at the very bottom. There is no way I would ever make it more than two and a half steps down such a staircase, but I understand its terrible logic: if we want the rewards of being loved we have to submit to the mortifying ordeal of being known.
In this essay, the parallel sentence structure sets forth a complex idea with supreme elegance. The parallelism helps keep each idea equally weighted: the work of being known is certainly mortifying, but its reward is equal in nature. We cannot be loved until the people that love us know who they are loving. The reciprocal relationship doesn’t need to be stated as reciprocal: syntax accomplishes this for us.
Parallelism Examples: “The Long and the Short of It” by Richard Siken
“I work my jobs, I take my pills. Knot the tie and go to work, unknot the tie and go to sleep. I sleep. I dream. I wake. I sing. I get out the hammer and start knocking in the wooden pegs that affix the meaning to the landscape, the inner life to the body, the names to the things.”
This entire paragraph is constructed in parallels, but what strikes me most is the final sentence. Siken showcases beautifully how language defines the world: it affixes meaning to landscape, it connects our bodies to our minds, and it names each and every object and idea. This demonstration of language’s capability, as well as the work of the writer, lingers in the brain both semantically and visually, tying the abstract to the concrete.
Parallelism Examples: Excerpt from the Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
“All of us know, whether or not we are able to admit it, that mirrors can only lie, that death by drowning is all that awaits one there. It is for this reason that love is so desperately sought and so cunningly avoided. Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.”
Baldwin was a master prose stylist, and this is hardly the only quotable parallel sentence he’s written. This passage highlights a certain duality applicable to a wide variety of situations. We are all wearing masks, in some way or another, and love takes off this mask so that we can be seen for who we truly are. How might love unmask the constructs imposed on us—like masks of nationhood, gender, or occupation?
Parallelism in Poetry
Here are some examples of parallelism in poetry.
Parallelism Examples: Excerpt from “A Litany for Survival” by Audre Lorde
And when the sun rises we are afraid
it might not remain
when the sun sets we are afraid
it might not rise in the morning
when our stomachs are full we are afraid
when our stomachs are empty we are afraid
we may never eat again
when we are loved we are afraid
love will vanish
when we are alone we are afraid
love will never return
and when we speak we are afraid
our words will not be heard
but when we are silent
we are still afraid
So it is better to speak
we were never meant to survive.
Lorde makes her argument through a series of negations: we are constantly worrying about the loss of something we have. If this is the case, it follows that our fears are better ignored. Why do we let fear prohibit us from achieving what we want? This is a poem that finds beauty in inversion. Rather than adopting the attitude “we’re all going to die,” the poem says “since we’re going to die, let’s enjoy the time we spend not dying, and demand what we deserve.” This point is hammered through a series of parallelisms.
Parallelism Examples: Excerpt from “Parameters” by Caitlin Scarano
There were days when we laughed,
days we grew teeth. Season to sow,
season to reap.
The juxtaposition of these two parallel sentences is simply gutting. It implies that laughter sows, and growing teeth reaps—that, in this relationship, the time spent in laughter sets the stage for fighting. This excerpt is a fantastic example of how parallelism can tie the abstract to the concrete, using visual imagery that sticks in the mind’s eye. (Check out what Caitlin is teaching with Writers.com!)
Parallelism Examples: “We Lived Happily During the War” by Ilya Kaminsky
And when they bombed other people’s houses, we
but not enough, we opposed them but not
enough. I was
in my bed, around my bed America
was falling: invisible house by invisible house by invisible
I took a chair outside and watched the sun.
In the sixth month
of a disastrous reign in the house of money
in the street of money in the city of money in the country of
our great country of money, we (forgive us)
lived happily during the war.
The parallelisms that Kaminsky employs help amplify the poem’s critique. It makes visual the idea that every square foot of the country is not-so-figuratively paved in gold—highlighting the futility of protest in a nation that’s rich enough to do whatever it wants, including bombing its own houses.
Tips for Writing Parallel Structure
Parallel structure should be an actively utilized tool in every stylist’s toolkit. Here are some tips for writing parallelism examples in your own prose and poetry.
1. Avoid Faulty Parallelism
A faulty parallelism is a sentence set up to have parallel structure, but with an error. We’ve already seen some examples of this in our Parallelism Definition section. It happens most commonly in sentences with lists of three or more.
To reiterate, faulty parallelism can manifest in the following ways:
- Mismatched verb tenses
- Different parts of speech
- Different points of view
- Nouns and pronouns with different numbers
- Mismatched subject matter
- Stylistic error
Here are some faulty parallelism examples, using each of the above flaws:
Parallel sentence: We like to travel the world, read lyric poetry, and eat ice cream.
Faulty parallelism examples:
- Mismatched verb tenses: We like to travel the world, read lyric poetry, and ate ice cream.
- Different parts of speech: We like to travel the world, read lyric poetry, and ice cream.
- Different points of view: We like to travel the world, she reads lyric poetry, and you eat ice cream.
- Mismatched subject matter: We like to travel the world, read lyric poetry, and support our grieving friends. (You might get away with a sentence like this by writing satire.)
- Stylistic error: We like to travel the world, read lyric poetry, and eat mountains and mountains of Van Leeuwen’s honeycomb ice cream with toasted walnuts. (I sure do.)
And, for nouns and pronouns with different numbers: The sky is filled with an airplane, birds, and clouds. (“Airplanes” would make this parallel.)
2. Pay Attention to Rhythm and Flow
Good parallel sentences have rhythm and flow. Typically, this is accomplished by giving each component of the sentence equal weight. When one item has more words, or more unique words, than the other items, then the sentence is likely to be jarring. Simplicity is key.
Here’s a simple, stylish parallel sentence: I think, therefore I am.
The following moderations are a bit less mellifluous:
- I cogitate, therefore I am.
- I think; ontologically, therefore, I must exist.
- Because I think, it follows that I also have existence.
In each of these examples, one side of the sentence weighs more than the other. Word choice and clause length both contribute to rhythmic and effective parallel structure.
See also: stylistic error as a form of faulty parallelism.
3. Deepen Relationships Between Objects and Ideas
For creative writers, parallelism can create relationships between objects and ideas concisely and elegantly.
Take the example of parallelism in poetry we shared from Caitlin Scarano. In those 2 ½ lines, the poem draws a connection between “laughter” and symbolic “teeth” without stating that connection explicitly. It creates a relationship between the two, showing cause and effect. This is also a means of employing show, don’t tell in writing.
Another thing you can do with parallelism is compare and contrast. Here’s an example, from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (III.ii)
Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones
Notice how the sentences are set up in parallel, but use contrasting words. “Bury vs praise” and “evil vs good” are set up side by side in this excerpt, deepening the reader’s understanding of Marc Antony’s intent.
4. Keep Things Simple
Don’t overextend an idea. Simplicity and elegance are key.
Here’s a parallelism that’s short and effective: Immature people want things to be “right” or “wrong,” but mature people recognize that things are complicated.
This sentence communicates exactly what it needs to. It opposes immaturity versus maturity, and it recognizes that many things in life are not absolutely good or bad; morality is more nuanced and complicated.
Here’s a sentence that goes too far: Immature people want things to be “right” or “wrong,” but mature people recognize things are complicated; immature people crave absolutes, mature people acknowledge nuance; immature people wish to condemn, mature people wish to understand.
While the ideas added to this sentence might add complexity, they’re tiring to read. The point has already been made, and the writer should trust in the reader. Spoonfeeding your ideas will rarely do the reader any good. Leave room for interpretation and understanding. Great parallelism examples will express themselves neatly, elegantly, and briefly.
5. Use the Oxford Comma
This last bit of advice is purely stylistic, and there are grammarians who disagree. But, here, we advocate for the oxford comma.
An oxford comma is a comma that precedes a conjunction in lists of 3 or more. Here’s an example: I like the colors yellow, purple, and black.
The comma after the word “purple” is the oxford comma. Now, in this example, it’s optional. If you remove that comma, it doesn’t change the meaning of the sentence. We still get three colors, and I still communicate to the reader that I like each of them.
Here’s an example where the oxford comma might prove useful:
I have met both my state senators, a clown professor and the queen of Sweden.
Without an oxford comma, this sentence implies that my two state senators are a clown professor and the queen of Sweden. This results in a faulty parallelism, because I am actually trying to communicate three items in a list. (Sadly, in real life, I have not met any of these people. Does Sweden even have a queen?)
Not every sentence needs an oxford comma, but it’s good practice to use it in every list you write. Otherwise, you might neglect the comma in a sentence that really needs it.
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