Use Parallel Structure

In a way I don’t like giving strict advice. The creative side of my brain wants to believe in the potential to experiment with words and sentence form. The creative side of my brain believes that anything goes. I don’t always like to tell people how to write, because writing is one of those things that is subjective. It is art form and a vehicle of expression!

However, if we are to return to academic or scientific writing, one thing that will easily and immensely improve the clarity of your writing is the use of parallel structure. I suppose that academic writing is mainly about communicating ideas, arguments, and research findings, and so perhaps more experimental forms of writing should be relegated to literature. Okay, perhaps not relegated, but reserved for use outside of academic writing 🙂 (please ignore everything just written and proceed to the next paragraph)

Parallel structure in the context of writing basically means that there is a sort of consistency and pattern in the elements of a sentence that are similar in type.

This is best illustrated by examples.

For example:

“Erosion is caused by the compaction of soil, deforesting vegetation, poorly infiltrating soil, and high wind velocity.”

Notice that in the above sentence, compaction and velocity may both be considered to be nouns. While, deforesting and infiltrating may also be used as nouns, they are in a different format/tense from the other elements of the list. I don’t want to get into verb tenses specifically in this section, but I would consider the following to be an improvement:

“Erosion is caused by the compaction of soil, deforestation of vegetation, poor water infiltration, and high wind velocity.”

Notice that all of the elements in the list are now nouns and in similar format. While these are things that are not necessarily similar in nature, they still follow a similar pattern or structure in their description.

Maybe we can take a look at a simpler sentence:

“Johnny likes to bike, run, and hike.”

The verbs in bold are all the same tense, so this works well. We could also say:

“Johnny likes biking, running, and hiking.”

This also works well because all of the elements are in the same format/tense. And also:

“Johnny likes to bike, to run, and to hike.”

Good. What would NOT work is:

“Johnny likes biking, to run, and hike.”

While this sentence may sound very obviously awkward, this sort of awkwardness can sometimes be overlooked in longer or more complex sentences.

For example:

“Species richness had decreased in cow pastures with intermittent grazing and was higher in well-preserved riparian remnants.”

As your sentences become more complex, it becomes easier to accidentally use structures that aren’t parallel. Whether the above is actually incorrect might be a finer point of discussion. However, the above sentence would be easier to read and understand if it used similar verb tense throughout. For example:

“Species richness had decreased in cow pastures with intermittent grazing and had increased in well-preserved riparian remnants.”

Now this only works if “cow pastures” and “riparian remnants” were truly comparable in relationship to species richness within the context of the study (i.e., they both formed experimental units). If not, they would be best separated into two separate structures or sentences.

Similar structure often gives a more authoritative sound and feel to your writing, as if you are communicating your ideas as directly and clearly as possible.

So any time you are connecting two elements in a sentence by a conjunction (and, but, so, yet, or, etc.), try to use a similar structure for the elements that are being connected, compared, or contrasted.


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