A Very Common (and Easily Fixed!) Gaffe

Here’s a writing style issue that I’ve seen rather frequently lately, both while editing and while out in the wilds of the real world. And although some would argue it isn’t a rule and therefore isn’t required, I speak on behalf of all readers when I say that following this suggestion makes your writing immeasurably easier to read. It’s the idea of parallel structure (also referred to as parallel construction or parallelism). It’s a lovely term to toss around because it sounds brainy, but it’s really pretty simple to understand, once you see an example.

Happily, I just came across a terrific demonstration on my Twitter feed. Thanks so much to David Pogue, whom I see often on CBS Sunday Morning, for posting this:

Do you see the problem? It’s actually fairly easy to miss, because our brains usually fix it subconsciously, like when we read transposed letters as if they weren’t transposed. Here Marriott has listed three things, but they don’t exactly all go together, at least not the way the line was written.

The rule of parallel structure is that all items in a list or series need to be written in the same grammatical form. But don’t worry, you don’t necessarily have to be able to identify grammatical forms. You can usually tell if the items are in the same form if they each work with the same word or phrase to which they’re attached.

Looking at Marriott’s line, the items in the list are the words gosee, and do, and happily for us, a test phrase is provided: more of what you love. But do each of the items — gosee, and do — work with more of what you love? That is the test.

So, let’s see: Do more of what you love. That works. See more of what you love. That also works. But Go more of what you love . . . definitely does not work. So although it might seem like the three terms are parallel, one of these things is actually not like the other. That’s faulty parallel structure.

Here are some options to make the list parallel:

  • Just leave the wrong word off the list: Do and see more of what you love.
  • Go could also be combined with see, as in Go to see and do more of what you love. Here’s how that works with the test: Do more of what you love. That works, as we already saw. Go to see more of what you love, using the revised item, also works.
  • Go! See and do more of what you love! works because it takes go out of the list and puts it in a separate sentence.

Whether or not those suggestions work as well from an advertising standpoint is outside of my wheelhouse, and of course ad campaigns aren’t exactly renowned for their perfect sentence structure, but I thank Marriott and David Pogue for supplying the excellent example.

Always confirm that each element of a list within a sentence or group of sentences is in the same form. Better yet, make sure that you have a professional copy editor review your work before you publish it. If you don’t, you may end up with someone from CBS Sunday Morning posting your error on Twitter. No one wants that.