Friday, April 29, 2005

Parallel Structure, Part 1

Beware of the words and, which always wants a pair or group or like items, and or, which wants a pair or group of unlike items. Look at two funny examples:
  1. I like coconuts, mangoes, and you.
  2. Love me or marry me.
In the first sentence, the word you might have come as a complete surprise because the word and had you expecting a third fruit. In the second sentence, you probably expected to hear after the word or the phrase "leave me" since most people marry because of love, not in spite of it. These are errors in parallel structure.
How do errors in parallel structure show up in business writing? Here are real examples I’ve collected from managers’ writing over the years:
  1. She had done a good job for us, and we gave her a raise. This is a cause-effect situation, not an additional thought. Revise it to "She had done a good job for us, so we gave her a raise."
  2. I read your proposal and liked your suggestions. I did not complete two actions, but rather completed one while feeling a certain way in the process. Revise it to "I liked reading the suggestions in your proposal," or "I read you proposal, which had helpful suggestions."
  3. The application information should come from your education or experience. In this context, an education is an experience, not the opposite of one. Revise it to read "The application information should come from your education or employment."
You may think that I am nitpicking because these nonparallel sentences would still be understandable. But they would not be clear to everyone. The next time you emerge from attending a meeting or reading a document thinking that three key points were discussed when there were really two or four, don’t be too quick to blame yourself. Perhaps the writer did not treat the issues equally, that is, in parallel form.