Parallel Structure and Repetition

Both parallel structure and repetition are powerful tools for a writer.  They can

  • help a reader or listener follow the argument. (Great orators, in particular, use both repetition and parallel structure often.  A listener, who can't easily review what's been said, needs help even more than a reader.)
  •  make possible long, but clear and effective sentences,
  • show how related ideas fit together,
  • show how ideas contrast with each other.

Beginning writers are sometimes taught to avoid repetition at all cost.  The car in the first sentence becomes the vehicle in the next and the automobile in the sentence after that.  It's artificial and confusing.  A few good pronouns usually help, but the solution often is simply to repeat key words. As always, writers must read and listen to their own writing to decide whether repetition is effective or tedious.

Similarly, writers sometimes vary sentence structure merely for the sake of variety.  If ideas share a logical relationship, put them in parallel form. 

Sometimes, inexperienced writers think of parallel structure only within a single sentence.  They learn, for example, that they may write

  • I like swimming, jogging, and playing tennis. OR
  • I like to swim, to jog, and to play tennis.
  • BUT NOT 
    I like swimming, jogging, and to play tennis.

In fact, parallel structure is far more useful than that.  In the Declaration of Independence, notice how Thomas Jefferson uses parallel structure to make clear which truths are held self-evident.  Notice, too, how he varies the length and rhythm of the parallel elements to avoid monotony and keep the reader engaged. 

We hold these Truths to be self-evident, 

  • that all Men are created equal, 
  • that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, 
  • that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness-- 
  • That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, 
  • that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it.... 

Notice how he uses parallel structure to show just what the king has done that is intolerable:

  • HE has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public Good.
  • HE has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing Importance, unless suspended in their Operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
  • HE has refused to pass other Laws for the Accommodation of large Districts of People, unless those People would relinquish the Right of Representation in the
    Legislature, a Right inestimable to them, and formidable to Tyrants only.
  • HE has called together Legislative Bodies at Places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the Depository of their public Records, for the sole Purpose of fatiguing them into Compliance with his Measures. 
  • HE has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly Firmness his Invasions on the Rights of the People. 
  • HE has refused for a long Time, after such Dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative Powers, incapable of the Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the Dangers of Invasion from without, and the Convulsions within. 
  • HE has endeavored to prevent the Population of these States; for that Purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to
    encourage their Migrations hither, and raising the Conditions of new Appropriations of Lands. 
  • HE has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary Powers. 
  • HE has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the Tenure of their Offices, and the Amount and Payment of their Salaries. 
  • HE has erected a Multitude of new Offices, and sent hither Swarms of Officers to harass our People, and eat out their Substance. 
  • HE has kept among us, in Times of Peace, Standing Armies, without the consent of our Legislatures. 
  • HE has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power. 
  • HE has combined with others to subject us to a Jurisdiction foreign to our Constitution, and unacknowledged by our Laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:

You may want to look for other examples of parallel structure in this beautifully written document.  If so, go to http://memory.loc.gov/const/declar.html.

Other sets of documents to look at are