- Big Bird would have four bowls on a table, three of which were the same size while the fourth was noticeably larger.
- Kermit would ask which three items belonged together, the choices being a saw, a hammer, a wrench and a shoe.
- Susan would show three numerals and a letter.
Not too hard, right? But a lot of us have trouble applying that when it comes to writing. The rule that guides this area is called “parallel construction,” also known as “parallel structure” or “false series.”
Keep like things together
This basic rule of grammar helps people understand what you’re talking about. To do so, you need to be sure the words you use in series of any sort have the same syntax.
Make them all adjectives or all nouns or all verbs. In other words, don’t put a shoe in the middle of your list of tools. For example:
Susan said she loves John because he’s kind, gentle and a doctor.
Susan said she loves John because he’s kind, gentle and well-educated.
Without any analysis, your ear tells you that the first one is wrong and the second is right, doesn’t it? To get technical, the first example doesn’t work because “kind” and “gentle” are adjectives while “a doctor” is a noun. Drop the noun and find another adjective and it works.
It also would be fine to make all of the items nouns:
Susan said she loves John because he’s a sailor, a doctor and a philanthropist.
Mix and match doesn’t work
Not long ago, a local real estate company violated the parallel construction rule in a way that made their billboard ads sound clumsy. (I think the agents themselves submitted the copy. I can’t imagine how a knowledgeable copywriter would let this get through.)
On billboards across the Twin Cities, Coldwell Banker Burnet touted the qualities of their agents. Here’s the basic template:
- Show a photo of the agent(s)
- Display the agent’s name, followed by a colon
- List the agent’s qualities
The last quality is always “real estate agent,” which is a noun. The parallel construction rule says that all the other qualities need to be nouns, too.
Here’s how it should work:
Persuasive? Maybe. Maybe not. But at least Jim has parallel construction on his side.
Not so for the Hansens here. They, too, cite parenthood as a quality and close by saying, yes, indeed they’re real estate agents. But in between, they throw in an adjective – “ambitious” – that violates the rule (and, frankly, doesn’t give much reassurance that they’re on the side of the consumer).
Or how about Kristi Weinstock’s billboard? The construction here is: noun-sentence fragment-noun. (And why in the space of nine words does she need to use the phrase “real estate” twice?)
Then there was the billboard (sorry about the image quality) featuring Christine Valerius and Lisa Piazza: adjective-phrase-noun. Do you hear the clunkiness when you read this to yourself?
Sometimes you need to follow the rules
Ads don’t need to be paragons of grammatical precision. Sentence fragments, for example, are perfectly acceptable. But when they don’t align with simple rules of logic, you’ve got a problem that would even make Kermit wince.