From the Copy Desk (February Edition)

Feb 12, 2014

Copyediting: Parallel Structure

According to the wonderful Purdue Online Writing Labs, “Parallel structure means using the same pattern of words to show that two or more ideas have the same level of importance. This can happen at the word, phrase, or clause level.” If this is a new concept to you, it’s worth reading the page on parallel structure, which is short and full of good examples.

After reading those examples, you might say, “Well, of course I would never make those kinds of mistakes.” And you might very well not mix forms (“Mary likes hiking, swimming, and to ride a bicycle”), but there might be other errors in parallel structure that you’re more likely to commit (and that are slightly harder to correct). Here’s an example:

I like watching sitcoms, crime dramas, cooking shows, and listening to music.

At first it looks like a standard list, but look at it again. The first three elements of this list go with “watching,” but the last element of the list doesn’t (it’s not “watching listening to music”). You can’t fix it by simply changing the form of the last element to match the form of the first three elements, because they’re completely different things. Here’s a simple way to fix it:

I like watching sitcoms, crime dramas, and cooking shows and listening to music.

When copyediting, making the smallest change possible to correct and clarify something is the goal. However, if you’re editing your own writing or doing a more substantial edit of someone else’s work, here’s another possible fix:

I like watching TV (sitcoms, crime dramas, and cooking shows) and listening to music.

This change makes it clearer that there are two main things that you like (watching and listening) and that watching is broken into different categories.

Errors in parallel structure can cause your readers to pause for a few seconds to figure out what’s going on, and you want to do everything you can to not distract your readers. So watch out for that tricky parallel structure!

The Authors

Kevin-Jackson Mead is our copyediting whizz. He majored in Math and has had an editorial career in the math, science, and medical fields.

Pauline Wright has extensive experience copyediting and managing projects. She manages all of the copyediting of SRM programs—print and digital.

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