Monthly Archives: May 2010

Parallel Construction

Writing can be a lot more like math than first meets the eye, especially in regard to sentence structure.

Think of coordinating conjunctions (and, but, or), for instance, like plus signs. If you studied algebra, you’ll recall that different variables can’t be added. So an equation like 2X + 5Y= 60 can’t be restated as 7Y=60 or 7X=60. In other words, you can’t add apples and oranges.

So too in writing, apples and oranges can’t be “added,” that is, they can’t be on two sides of a coordinating conjunction.

That’s the principle. Now how does this concept play out in real writing?

Here are a few ways the principle of parallelism should work:

1. In a list, all items should be the same part of speech.

    Poor: Her favorite parts were the actors, the scenery, and how funny the movie was. (joins two nouns and one clause)

    Better: Her favorite parts were the actors, the scenery, and the humor.

2. When a conjunction is joining two prepositional phrases, the preposition needs to be included.

    Poor: A crisis is not a time for wasteful discussion, but meaningful action. (omits a preposition)

    Better: A crisis is not a time for wasteful discussion, but for meaningful action.

3. In compound sentences, the various clauses should be either active or passive rather than mixed.

    Poor: Authors may leave a message in the comment box, or emailing a request is accepted. (first clause is active, second is passive)

    Better: Authors may leave a message in the comment box or email a request. (compound sentence changed to a compound verb)

Proper parallel construction, which may include intentional repetition, can be a valuable tool in writing. It paces the writing, shows contrasts or comparisons, provides emphasis, and more.

The Bible, especially the King James Version, is a great source for examples of parallelism. Here’s one example from the book of Proverbs in the New American Standard. Note how the two clauses start with prepositional phrases using the same prepositions:

    At the head of the noisy streets she cries out;
    At the entrance of the gates in the city she utters her sayings

My advice? Read Scripture regularly. It’s a great spiritual discipline, but it also provides wonderful examples of parallelism, to the point that your use of it will become instinctive.

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Writing with Intentionality

At the excellent blog Write to Done, I recently read a good article, “The Golden Rule of Writing”, that gave The One Writing Rule for all writers: intend every word you write. Or as I paraphrase it, write with intention.

Actually I think my version has a broader meaning, but let’s consider the original first. When a writer intends every word he writes, he must first understand what each of his words mean. Surprisingly, authors sometimes misuse words. 😉

In fact, Chicago Manual of Style includes a substantial section in the Word Usage division entitled “Glossary of Troublesome Expressions,” covering such things as the difference between childlike and childish.

Authors misuse some words, especially verbs, because of unfamiliarity with the requirements of the word. For example, a verb like purport requires a following infinitive. (He is not the great writer he purports to be.) Transitive verbs require objects (She studied the example) whereas intransitive verbs should not have them (They strolled to the park and back).

Besides misuse, we writers sometimes don’t think about the implication of our words or how readers will commonly interpret them. Such nonchalance leads us to write things like

    The author the student copied in his dissertation isn’t well-known.

Hopefully, no student is copying another writer in an important scholarly work. Quoting another writer, imitating another writer, but not copying.

Not only should an author choose words intentionally for their meaning but for the mood they create. Consider these synonyms of dark: black, pitch-black, jet-black, inky; unlit, unilluminated; starless, moonless; dingy, gloomy, dusky, shadowy, shady. I suggest the last four words have a different feel than the former ones.

Or how about these synonyms for wall: obstacle, barrier, fence; impediment, hindrance, block, roadblock, check. I suggest fence gives a different connotation, and therefore sets a different mood, than does roadblock.

Not only should an author select words with intention, he should construct sentences with intention, and so too paragraphs, scenes, chapters, and stories.

Some writers, to be sure, let their stories meander, then with intention throw away the parts that do not work together with the whole. These writers, often referred to as SOTP or seat-of-the-pants writers, talk about their characters telling them what will happen next or about following their characters where they naturally want to go. In so using this kind of language, the writer sounds as if he is not in control of the writing, as if he is not creating with intentionality. I suggest this is not the case.

Suppose the main character is a young boy whose father left the family two years ago. This boy begins to have trouble in school. He gets into fights, his grades drop, he back-talks his teachers, and one day, he is expelled.

Perhaps the writer, upon beginning the story, had not intended for the character to be expelled, but the bad behavior naturally led to that result. Consequently, the author talks as if the character is in charge.

However, if the writer doesn’t want the character to be expelled, all he has to do is make a change in the protagonist’s personality or inner character traits so that he isn’t aggressive in response to his father’s leaving. Perhaps, instead, he is passive-aggressive (sullen), or compulsive (he’s now the man of the family and has to Take Care Of Things).

Choosing an angry response instead of a passive-aggressive one or a compulsive one should be as intentional as choosing a particular word to use in a given sentence.

There’s more to say about writing intentionally, but I’ll save that for another day.

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