Grammar as Rhetoric and Style Parallel Structures Generally

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Grammar as Rhetoric and Style

  • Parallel Structures


  • Sentences or parts of a sentence are parallel when structures within them take the same form
  • Parallelism is important at the level of the word, the phrase, and the clause.


  • Why should we live with such hurry and waste of life? –Thoreau
  • In this sentence, the words hurry and waste, both nouns, follow the preposition with; hurry and waste are parallel.
  • In eternity there is indeed something true and sublime.- Thoreau
  • In this sentence, the words true and sublime, both adjectives, modify the pronoun something; true and sublime are parallel.


  • Men esteem truth remote, in the outskirts of the system, behind the farthest star, before Adam and after the last man. –Thoreau
  • To modify the adjective remote in this first sentence, Thoreau uses parallel prepositional phrases; in the outskirts, before the farthest star, before Adam, and after the last man.
  • It has truly been said that never in history have so many educated people devoted so much attention to so few children.—Jane Howard.
  • In the next example, Jane Howard uses three parallel noun phrases, each beginning with so; so many educated people, so much attention, so few children.

PHRASES, con’d

  • This is more difficult, because there is no zeitgeist to read, no template to follow, no mask to wear. –Anna Quindlen
  • And in the preceding sentence, Anna Quindlen uses three parallel nouns each preceded by no and each followed by an infinitive; no zeitgeist to read, no template to follow, and no mask to wear.


  • “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For”— Title of an essay by Thoreau
  • The title of Thoreau’s essay consists of two parallel dependent, or subordinate clauses; one begins with where, and the other begins with what.
  • We perceived that only great and worthy things have any permanent and absolute existence, that petty fears and petty pleasures are but the shadow of the reality. –Thoreau
  • The preceding example contains two parallel dependent clauses, each beginning with that and functioning as an object of the verb perceive.

CLAUSES, con’d

  • If we are really dying, let us hear the rattle in our throats and feel cold in the extremities; if we are alive, let us go about our business.—Thoreau
  • This example begins with a dependent clause (If…dying) followed by an independent, or main, clause (let…extremities); then after the semicolon, Thoreau presents another dependent-independent construction, parallel to the first.


  • To fully appreciate the power of the parallelism created by Thoreau, Howard and Quindlen in the preceding examples, consider what happens when supposedly equal elements of a sentence do not follow the same grammatical or syntactical form—that is, when they are not parallel with each other:
  • Why should we live with such hurry and to waste life?
  • This version of Thoreau’s sentence tries to modify the verb should live by coordinating a prepositional phrase, with such hurry, with an infinitive phrase, to waste life. The two phrases are not parallel with each other, and as a result, the sentence lacks balance and force.

Here’s another non-parallel sentence:

  • It has truly been said that never in history have a lot of people who are well educated devoted their attention to such a small number of children.
  • The preceding sentence, like the actual sentence by Howard, still has a dependent clause with a subject (a lot of people who are well educated), a verb (have devoted), and an object (their attention) followed by a prepositional phrase (to such a small number).
  • But the subject, verb, object and prepositional phrase no longer share one arrangement of words; they are no longer parallel. As a result, the sentence is harder to read and easier to forget.

Rhetorical and Stylistic Strategy:

  • Looking first at the parallel sentences at the beginning of this lesson and then at the non-paralleling re-writes, you can see that writers use parallelism on the level of the word, phrase, or clause as a rhetorical and stylistic device to emphasize ideas, to contrast ideas, or to connect ideas.
  • Following are the names, definitions and examples of specific types of parallelism:


  • The deliberate repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive clauses.:
  • But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and father at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters;…when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”—then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. –MLK
  • In this example, form follows function. Just as King is saying that African Americans have had to endure unjust treatment as they waited for full civil rights, this series of parallel clauses makes the reader wait—and wait—for the main point in the independent clause.


  • The contrast of thoughts in two phrases, clauses, or sentences:
  • Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.—MLK
  • One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. –MLK
  • That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind. –Neil Armstrong
  • In all three of these examples, the parallel structure creates a clear comparison between two things in order to emphasize the difference between them. Given by the oppressor is contrasted in meaning and in placement with demanded by the oppressed. Notice also how the parallel prepositional phrases by the oppressor and by the oppressed call attention to the tension between oppressor and oppressed.


  • The identical or near repetition of words in one phrase or clause in reverse order in the next phrase or clause:
  • We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us. –Thoreau
  • Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.—JFK
  • The example above from JFK is perhaps, his most famous quote. Part of what makes this quote so “quotable” is that the repetition inherent in the antimetabole makes it dramatic and easy to remember. Because the pattern of the two clauses is so similar, the listener only needs to remember one pattern. Because that sentence pattern in repeated, it gives the listener two chances to understand the entire sentence and places extra emphasis on the second part. It is almost as if JFK is repeating a point for emphasis. Keep an eye out for antimetabole in modern political soundbites.


  • A figure of speech made when one part of speech (usually a verb, but sometimes a noun or an adjective) is related to another part of speech in a way that is consistent in terms of grammar but incongruous in terms of meaning. Such use is often humorous and usually ironic.
  • Someone sent me a T-shirt not long ago that read “Well-Behaved Women Don’t Make History.” They don’t make good lawyers, either, or doctors or businesswomen.—Anna Quindlen
  • In this example, the zeugma is created when the verb make takes many different nouns as its direct object: history, but also, lawyers, doctors, and businesswomen. While all of these words are nouns, they do not have the same meanings—history is not an occupation, while all the other nouns are. There is a consistency in the pattern, but an inconsistency in the meaning of the words. Quindlen exploits the ironic inconsistency of the zeugma to draw a connection between two things that her audience might not otherwise think of as connected: activists who fought for women’s rights, and women today who are trying to build their careers.

Effects of All Four Parallelism Forms:

  • Anaphora: form follows function; a series of parallel clauses makes the reader wait—and wait—for the main point in the independent clause. Often employed in speeches, appealing to pathos.
  • Antithesis: clear contrasts emphasize differences between two entities, may create tension between them. Appeals to pathos or logos sometimes.
  • Antimetabole: creates dramatic effect; emphasizes two chances to remember what is being said; extra emphasis is on second part of sentence (the reversed part). This adds memorable-ness, making the whole statement “catchy”---often a rhetorical strategy employed in ads and political speeches. Can appeal to logos due to the mental acrobatics required to comprehend message, but can appeal to pathos due to emotional “punch” administered at the end of sentence. Boom.
  • Zeugma: irony and humor, mainly. Exploits an ironic inconsistency that draws connections between the two entities that the reading audience wouldn’t naturally think to connect/relate.

Some Antimetabole Examples:

  • “Liebling uses antimetabole to emphasize how, no matter which way you think about it, she is the “best” and the “fastest”.
  • Hurston uses antimetabole to mimic the idea that no matter what a woman is doing—trying to remember or trying to forget—she is able to do it equally well.
  • Malcolm uses antimetabole to add emphasis to the second independent clause and to show how the Pilgrims had an opposite/reverse experience than the African Americans did, when first were in America.

Some Antithesis Examples:

  • Goethe uses antithesis to emphasize the contrast between love and marriage, to show that love is an idealized abstraction but that marriage is what we live.
  • The ad uses antithesis to emphasize that while everybody may dislike something, nobody dislikes the product, Sara Lee.
  • Adams uses antithesis to contrast what we notice (computers and e-book readers) and what we miss (pennies and books), in order to make his point that we are noticing all the wrong things.

Some Zeugma Examples:

  • O’Brien uses zeugma for ironic effect, to show his readers that an officer carries equipment but also a huge “responsibility for the lives of his men.”
  • Tan uses zeugma to emphasize the ordinariness of her narrator’s marriage of “partners” but not “soul mates”—that they were incidentally sharing both the common stuff—like menus—as well as a life together.
  • Flanders uses zeugma to emphasize all the things that can be “raised”—glasses, courage, eyes and a young man’s hopes—in order to show the effects of a woman lowering her standards through drink.

Some Anaphora Examples:

  • Chandler uses anaphora to emphasize how much he needs a drink, life insurance, a vacation and a home in the country, in contrast to what he HAS: a coat, a hat and a gun, in order to show what bad shape he was in.
  • Sanders uses anaphora to emphasize the visual images of so many abused people in so many public places—bruised children on the buses, abandoned children in the churches, battered mothers “at our doors”—in order to show his audience the unintended but visible consequences of living with an alcoholic father and husband.

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