Parallelisms

Another in my occasional posts about the rhetorical tools that are available to careful writers. I put up these posts as much to understand the subjects myself as to make the presumption that you might be interested.

Parallelism is a device that I find myself using a lot. In its broadest definition, it is the repeating of some syntactical structure, either within a sentence or across several sentences, to show the equal weight of each point and/or to help the reader follow the thought through an otherwise complex collection of ideas. This might be the repeating of a verb or of a verb form. Or it could be done with multiple subjects, prepositional phrases, gerunds, and so on.

“With malice toward none, with charity toward all” is a well known phrase in American history. It eloquently states that both callings are equal (in dealing with the consequences of the U.S. Civil War).

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Sustenance can come in many ways, as is brought together and emphasized in this construction:

“The food was nourishing, the conversation nurturing.”

*   *   *

Here is a string of short sentences from my novel-in-progress. My intent is to ratchet up the terrible realization my protagonist is reaching:

“Bower knew this. Bower needed this. Bower, I suspect, arranged this.”

And here is a sentence from the first chapter when he begins his terrible journey:

“The great empire that had been wrested from a young land had gone out with a whimper, and I was set loose in the world with no prospects, no resources, and no friends.”

*   *   *

Notice how the parallel structure of these subordinate clauses helps keep the reader on track with the thoughts below:

“These critics—who point out the beauties of style and ideas, who discover the faults of false constructions, and who discuss the application of the rules—usually help a lot in engendering an understanding of the writer’s essay.”

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And see how it might be switched up:

“And from these melancholy dispositions no man living is free, no Stoick, none so wise, none so happy, none so patient, so generous, so godly, so divine, that can vindicate himself; so well-composed, but more or less, some time or other, he feels the smart of it.”

from The Anatomy of Melancholy
Robert Burton

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The list of examples could go on and on.

Like all rhetorical devices, parallelism can be quickly overused and seem affected. But it can provide punch, and once you’re aware of it, you tend to see it in a lot of serious writing, both fiction and nonfiction.

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A note: I am not advocating that a writer should select any given rhetorical device with the sole intent to find a way to use it in a bit of creative writing. While that might be useful as a practice technique, I don’t think it would be a natural form of writing. Rather, I think serious writers ought to acquire these tools through a sort of osmosis, by reading good writing. They should become second nature to the writer, part of his or her toolbox. (I feel similarly about the so-called “rules” of grammar.)

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