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Parallel Sentences and Phrases

Non-Parallel Sentences: A Common Problem in Sentence Structure

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One portion of the SAT writing test requires students to find and improve poorly-written sentences. It’s important for students to know what problems appear frequently within these sentences, in order to improve their chances of scoring well. One common sentence problem involves non-parallel structure.

Parallelism concerns the balance of a sentence, or the similarity of words, phrases, or clauses in a list or series within a sentence. Sound complicated? It’s not, really.

The following sentences have parallelism of words. There is a list of items in each sentence, and each of the items is similar in form to the other two:

Bethany enjoys baking cakes, cookies, and brownies.

She doesn’t like washing dishes, ironing clothes, or mopping the floor.

The sentencebelow  is incorrect because it does not contain parallel objects:

Bethany enjoys baking cakes, cookies, and to make brownies.

See the difference? The incorrect sentence sounds awkward because it contains a mixture of two verbal nouns (gerunds) and an infinitive phrase.

This sentence contains an unparallel mixture of a gerund and a noun:

She doesn’t like washing clothes or housework.

But this sentence contains two gerunds:

She doesn’t like washing clothes or doing housework.

Parallelism is necessary in phrases, as well:

The British Museum is a wonderful place to see ancient Egyptian art, you can explore African artifacts, and beautiful find textiles from around the world.

This sentence sounds jerky and out of balance, doesn’t it? That’s because the phrases are not parallel. Now read this:

The British Museum is a wonderful place where you can find ancient Egyptian art, explore African artifacts, and discover beautiful textiles from around the world.

Notice that each phrase has a verb and a direct object. Parallelism is necessary when a series of words, thoughts, or ideas appears in one sentence. If you encounter a sentence that just sounds wrong or clunky, look for conjunctions like and, or, but, and yet to determine whether the sentence is off balance.

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