Editing for parallelism: one writing lesson from the proverb

creative writing expository writing High School writing

Statistical Mediation & Moderation in Psychological Research (33)When I teach my students to become their own editors, I often tell them to be on the lookout for opportunities to use parallelism. Parallelism is the repetition of the same grammatical structure in successive parts of a sentence. (Grammatical structure is just a fancy way of saying some combination of nouns, verbs, and other parts of speech.)

Parallelism packs punch; it makes your writing clearer, easier to understand, and more memorable. By the way, that list of three comparative adjectives? Parallelism in action!

Let’s have another example. When I was writing a statement expressing my philosophy of education, this was my first draft:

To provide an education is not just to teach students basic competencies, but also nurturing their strengths.

My first edit:

To provide an education is not just to teach students basic competencies, but also to nurture their strengths.

To add parallelism, I changed “nurturing” to an infinitive verb so that it matches “to provide” and “to teach.” Going further, I added an adjective in front of “strengths” to match the structure of “basic competencies”:

To provide an education is not just to teach students basic competencies, but also to nurture their unique strengths.

Your writing doesn’t necessarily have to be parallel to be grammatically correct, but it’s a powerful rhetorical tool.

I always advise reading aloud your writing at the editing stage. It’s painful, but it can help you spot errors and opportunities to use devices like parallelism. More specifically, you can really impress your reader with parallelism in openings, closings, and statements of purpose, argument, or discovery. These are high-stakes moments, the perfect places for you to shine. In fact, a well-wrought sentence can even be a literary form of its own.

Proverbs and Parallelism

One of the shortest literary forms, the proverb—a close cousin of the maxim, the aphorism, the epigram, and many other super-short genre—often relies heavily on parallelism. (Note: scholars debate the subtle differences between these various terms; I chose “proverb” as my umbrella term mainly because it starts with the same letter as parallelism and I have a weakness for alliteration.) A proverb can be a moral or philosophical saying, a piece of advice, an accepted truth, a daring provocation, or some combination thereof.

In these uncertain months of the early pandemic, in spring 2020, I grew to love the grace and balance of proverbs. During quarantine, I read whatever was lying around the house, which meant I found myself turning to classics.

In William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, I found a collection of surprising and subversive proverbs. My favorite one:

"Excess of sorrow laughs. Excess of joy weeps."

These two linked sentences draw power from two rhetorical devices. One is parallelism: “Excess of noun verb” is repeated. The structure is simple, but Blake inverts the conventions we’d expect: he crosses the concepts of happiness and sadness (sorrow-laughs-joy-weeps à sad-happy-happy-sad à A-B-B-A). This inversion or crossing is a kind of parallelism known as chiasmus (which, incidentally, comes from the Greek for "marked with chi," that is, diagonally "crossing" with the letter X). Blake’s use of chiasmus produces an unexpected proposition about the world, that too much of an emotion looks and feels like its opposite. He might also be musing about what joy and sorrow have in common, the way they both possess our bodies. But I digress!

Blake reminded me of another writer who uses parallelism, Oscar Wilde, known for his savage wit and iconoclastic wisdom. Here’s a saying of his:

"A community is infinitely more brutalized by the habitual employment of punishment than it is by the occasional occurrence of crime."

Wilde’s comparison of “punishment” and “crime,” and his assertion that punishment is itself a kind of crime against a community, is strengthened by parallelism. Spot it?

Following my curiosity, I looked for older proverbs, and what better place than the Old Testament? My favorites were not in the aptly named Book of Proverbs but in Ecclesiastes. Here are two proverbs befitting these times of disease and uncertainty. Bad news first:

"For man also knoweth not his time: as the fishes that are taken in an evil net, and as the birds that are caught in the snare; so are the sons of man snared in an evil time, when it falleth suddenly upon them." (9:12)

In this proverb about the unpredictability of death, parallelism is part of a pair of similes. That is, the “sons of man” are compared to animals who cannot know or control their fate.

Here’s something a little more comforting:

"[A] man hath no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry: for that shall abide with him of his labour the days of his life, which God giveth him under the sun." (8:15)

From this series of parallel verbs, “to eat, to drink, and to be merry,” we get the saying so often emblazoned on restaurant walls: “eat, drink, and be merry.” It’s memorable and pithy, and I hope we can abide by it if we can.

P.S. If you’re looking for more practice, see if you can spot all the instances of parallelism in this blog post! 



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