Sunday, March 15, 2015

Points on Parallel Structure, Part 1

People who know their job do not mess up on the big words, but they do on the little ones. By "big words," I mean the terminology specific to a field. For examples, project-managing engineers would not misuse the terms beneficial use and substantial completion, scientists correctly use in situ and in vitro, all attorneys know how to use lis pendens and pendente lite, accountants get the difference between appreciation and depreciation, and doctors would not err in distinguishing between electrocardiogram and electroencephalogram

But the small stuff? This is where we all need to take a second look. For instance, use of the simple words and, but, and or immediately points to a parallel, or consistent, relationship among ideas in both grammar and concept, yet writers from all disciplines often miss this key idea. In overlooking parallel structure, these professionals lose precision, clarity, and concision. Here are instances I have come across from writers in these fields.

1. A project manager: We need to meet with the contractor and discuss the revised critical path method.

The and in this 14-word sentence joins two actions, meet and discuss. Often, the second action is the only one that matters, as this 12-word sentence shows:
We need to discuss the revised critical path method with the contractor.
2. A scientist: We will use single-cell genetic approaches and determine the role of postsynaptic GABAB receptors.

In this sentence, the parallel that and draws between use and determine overstates the goal as an accomplished fact. The scientist actually wants to determine by means of using. The following accurate sentence shows the true relationship between use and determine by dropping and:
We will use single-cell approaches to determine the role of postsynaptic GABAB receptors.

3. An attorney: The plaintiff did not file a formal complaint, and the charge is without merit.

The writer misses the cause-effect relationship, as shown below:
The charge lacks merit since the plaintiff did not file a formal complaint.

4. An accountant: Our audit will include a review of documents, management interviews, and we will tour the facility.

This sentence fails to join the three aspects of the audit in grammatically parallel terms. The more balanced sentence below does with a consistent adjective-noun arrangement:
Our audit will include a document review, management interviews, and a facility tour.

5. A doctor: The patient has no allergies to medication but to fish.

A reader could quickly lose the meaning of this sentence since but does not join two balanced phrases. A better sentence would be the following:
The patient is not allergic to any medication, but she is allergic to fish.

My point is that we are all apt to miss the parallel imperative that and, but, and or impose on our writing, so we should be on the lookout for these little words when editing.