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Dr. Karen Palmer

When revising your paper, checking to be sure that your ideas are properly aligned can help to strengthen your argument. Using parallelism to show that certain things or ideas are equal to each other is one way to enhance alignment in your paper. Proper subordination and coordination of ideas also helps align ideas properly in your paper.

Parallelism

Parallelism is the presentation of ideas of equal weight in the same grammatical fashion. It’s one of those features of writing that’s a matter of grammar, style, rhetoric, and content. Used well, it can enhance your readers’ (and even your own) understanding and appreciation of a topic. You’ll encounter parallelism in politics, advertising, religion, and poetry:

  • “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”
  • “Strong enough for a man, but made for a woman.”
  • “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”
  • “Some say the world will end in fire, / Some say in ice.”

Here are a couple of examples of sentences in need of parallelism:

1. While it was raining, I had to run into the grocery store, the dry cleaners, and stop at the bookstore. This sentence is not parallel because it includes three equally weighted ideas but presents two of them with action verbs and one without. By simply adding words such as “duck into” to the middle item, the sentence becomes parallel: While it was raining, I had to run into the grocery store, duck into the dry cleaners, and stop at the bookstore.

2. The test was long and requiring skills we hadn’t learned. This sentence is not parallel because it presents two like-weighted ideas using two different grammatical formats. Here is a parallel version: The test was long and required skills we hadn’t learned.

Parallelism is most often an issue with paired ideas and items in a series as shown in the preceding two examples. A key idea to keep in mind is that you need to use common wording with both items, such as common articles (e.g., the, a, an) and common prepositions (e.g., by, for, of, on, to). The next two subsections provide more in-depth discussion of these two concepts.

Making Paired Items Parallel

In a sentence, paired items or ideas are often connected with either a comparative expression (e.g., easier than, as much as, bigger than), a coordinated conjunction (e.g., and, but, for, nor, or, so, yet), or a correlative conjunction (e.g., both…and, either…or, just as…so, neither…nor, not…but, not only…but also, whether…or). Read the following error examples. Think of a way to correct each sentence. Then look below the error to see possible corrections. Note that you can usually correct each error in more than one way.

Our neighbor’s house is bigger than the size of our house.

Possible Corrections:

Our neighbor’s house is bigger than our house.

OR

The size of our neighbor’s house is bigger than the size of our house.

 

Louie, my crazy black lab, loves running after Frisbees and plays with leaves.

Possible Corrections:

Louie, my crazy black lab, loves running after Frisbees and playing with leaves.

OR

Louie, my crazy black lab, loves to run after Frisbees and to play with leaves.

 

Not only was he rude, but also ate all the shrimp balls.

Possible Corrections:

Not only was he rude, but also he ate all the shrimp balls.

OR

Not only was he rude, but he also ate all the shrimp balls.

Making Items in a Series Parallel

Items in a series include ideas embedded in a sentence as well as those in numbered or bulleted lists. One way to check for parallelism is to say the sentence stem that precedes the first item and then, one at a time, add each subsequent series item to the stem. Assuming the stem works with the first item, subsequent items that do not work with the stem are not parallel with the first item.

After I get off work, I’m driving to the gym, doing five miles, and weights.

Stem prior to the first item: After I get off work, I’m…

Stem works with the first item: After I get off work, I’m driving to the gym.

Stem works with the second item: After I get off work, I’m doing five miles.

Stem does not work with the third item: After I get off work, weights.

A version of the sentence that is parallel: After I get off work, I’m driving to the gym, running five miles, and lifting weights.

Now stem does work with the third item: After I get off work, I’m lifting weights.

Example:

On Saturday, my roommates and I are playing in a game of pick-up basketball, collecting coats for charity, work on our homework for three hours, and go to a party in the Village.

    • Possible Correction: On Saturday, my roommates and I are going to play in a game of pick-up basketball, collect coats for charity, spend three hours on homework, and go to a party in the Village.
    • OR: On Saturday, my roommates and I are playing in a game of pick-up basketball, collecting coats for charity, spending three hours on homework, and going to a party in the Village.

Utilizing Parallel Structure for Emphasis

If you take the most impressive or startling item in a series and place it last, you can draw attention to it as well as to the whole series. Look at the difference in the following two sentences.

Most impressive item buried within the series: In the accident, he received cuts on his face, a ruptured spleen, a cracked rib, and a mild concussion.

Most impressive item last: In the accident, he received cuts on his face, a mild concussion, a cracked rib, and a ruptured spleen.

Exercise 1

1. Indicate whether relevant parts of each sentence are parallel. Then rewrite the problem sentences to make them parallel.

  • Even though I don’t get paid as much, working in the psychology office is more meaningful than working at the fast food restaurant.
  • According to Lester, both going to a movie and midnight bowling are still being considered.
  • Abby, the attorney, and the child advocate named Becca held a meeting before the whole group arrived.
  • I have already packed casual pants, my favorite casual tops, dress pants, dress tops, some socks, plenty of underwear, and three pairs of shoes.

2. Write a sentence telling what you did this past weekend. Include an embedded series or a list in your sentence and make sure the items are parallel.

3. Write a sentence comparing two college classes. Make sure the comparison items are parallel.

Using Subordination and Coordination

Subordination and coordination are used to clarify the relative level of importance or the relationship between and among words, phrases, or clauses within sentences. You can use subordination to arrange sentence parts of unequal importance and coordination to convey the idea that sentence parts are of equal importance.

Subordination

Subordination allows you to convey differences in importance between details within a sentence. You can use the technique within a single sentence or to combine two or more smaller sentences. You should always present the most important idea in an independent clause and use dependent clauses and phrases to present the less important ideas. Start each dependent clause with a subordinating conjunction (e.g., after, because, by the time, even though, if, just in case, now that, once, only if, since, though, unless, until, when, whether, while) or a relative pronoun (e.g., that, what, whatever, which, whichever, who, whoever, whom, whomever, whose). These starters signal the reader that the idea is subordinate. Here’s a sentence that uses a relative pronoun to convey subordination:

I will come to your house or meet you at the gym, whichever works best for you.

The core idea is that I will either come to your house or meet you at the gym. The fact that you’ll choose whichever option works best for you is subordinate, set apart with the relative pronoun “whichever.”

In the next example, two smaller sentences are combined using the subordinating conjunction “because”:

  • Smaller sentence 1: The number of students who live at home and take online college classes has risen in the past ten years.
  • Smaller sentence 2: The rise has been due to increased marketing of university online programs.
  • Larger sentence using subordination (version 1): The number of students living at home and taking online college classes has risen in the past ten years because of increased marketing of university online programs.
  • Larger sentence using subordination (version 2): Because of increased marketing of university online programs, the number of students living at home and taking online courses has risen in the past ten years.

Subordination Pitfalls

You will want to avoid two common subordination mistakes: placing main ideas in subordinate clauses or phrases and placing too many subordinate ideas in one sentence.

Here’s an example of a sentence that subordinates the main idea:

  • LoDo, a charming neighborhood featuring great art galleries, restaurants, cafés, and shops, is located in the Lower Downtown District of Denver.

The problem here is that main idea is embedded in a subordinate clause. Instead of focusing on the distinctive features of the LoDo neighborhood, the sentence makes it appear as if the main idea is the neighborhood’s location in Denver. Here’s a revision:

  • LoDo, located in the Lower Downtown District of Denver, is a charming neighborhood featuring great art galleries, restaurants, cafés, and shops.

A sentence with too many subordinated ideas is confusing and difficult to read.

Here’s an example:

  • Television executives, who make the decisions about which shows to pull and which to extend, need to consider more than their individual opinions so that they do not pull another Star Trek mess-up where they don’t recognize a great show when they see it, while balancing the need to maintain a schedule that appeals to a broad audience, considering that new types of shows don’t yet have a broad following.

And here’s a possible revision:

  • Television executives need to consider more than their individual opinions when they decide which shows to pull and which to extend. Many years ago, some of these very executives decided that Star Trek should be canceled, clearly demonstrating they do not always know which shows will become great. Television executives should also balance the need to maintain a schedule that appeals to a broad audience with an appreciation for new types of shows that don’t yet have a broad following.

Coordination

Some sentences have two or more equal ideas. You can use coordination to show a common level of importance among parts of a sentence, such as subjects, verbs, and objectsw.

Subject example: Both green beans and asparagus are great with grilled fish.

Verb example: We neither talked nor laughed during the whole two hours.

Object example: Machine embroidery combines the beauty of high-quality stitching and the expediency of modern technology.

The underlined ideas within each sentence carry equal weight within their individual sentences. As examples of coordination, they can be connected with coordinating conjunctions (and, but, for, nor, or, so, yet) or correlative conjunctions (both…and, either…or, just as…so, neither…nor, not…but, not only…but also, whether…or).

Controlling Emphasis

You likely use subordination and coordination automatically. For example, if you say that something happened (e.g., Dale broke his leg while sledding) because of something else (e.g., he broke his leg when he sledded into a tree), you can use separate sentences, or you can use subordination within one sentence.

Ideas presented in two sentences: Dale broke his leg while sledding this weekend. His leg broke when the sled hit a tree.

Ideas presented in one sentence using subordination: This weekend, Dale broke his leg when his sled hit a tree. [Dale broke his leg is the main idea. The fact that it happened when the sled hit a tree is the subordinated idea.]

A natural way to use coordination is, for example, to discuss two things you plan to do on vacation. You can present the two ideas in separate sentences or in one sentence using coordination to signal equal emphases.

Ideas presented in two sentences: I’m planning to see the Statue of Liberty while I’m in New York. I’m also going to go to a Broadway play.

Ideas presented in one sentence using coordination: While I’m in New York, I am planning to see the Statue of Liberty and go to a Broadway play.

Exercise 2

1. Write a sentence about the thrill of deep-sea diving and include the subordinate idea that the scenery is often amazing.

2. Write a sentence including intercollegiate sports and intramural sports as coordinating ideas of equal weight.

3. Write a sentence using “new car” as an emphasized main idea and “red interior” as a less emphasized subordinated idea.

4. Write a sentence using “blogs” and “Facebook” as coordinated ideas with equal emphases.

5. Using ideas of your own, write a sentence that demonstrates the use of subordinating ideas.

6. Using ideas of your own, write a sentence that demonstrates the use of coordinating ideas.


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Aligning Ideas Copyright © 2023 by Dr. Karen Palmer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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