Sesame Street had a regular feature that taught very young children how to categorize: Big Bird would have four bowls on a table, three of which were the same size while the fourth was noticeably larger. Susan would show three numerals and a letter. Kermit would ask which three items belonged together, the choices being a saw, a hammer, a wrench and a shoe.
Not too hard, right? Okay, so let’s get a teensy bit more abstract here and talk about something called “parallel construction,” also known as “parallel structure” or “false series.” This basic rule of grammar helps people understand what you’re talking about. And apparently, it’s far too challenging a concept for the copywriters who’ve been producing billboards for a Minnesota-based real estate company, as you’ll see in a second.
To remind you of this rule, which you probably learned in about the 8th grade, parallel construction means that the words that you use in a series should 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. Like this:
Susan said she loves John because he’s kind, gentle and a doctor.
Susan said she loves John because he’s kind, gentle and rich.
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.
Simple enough, yet the copywriters hired to describe — on giant billboards — why we should trust one of the various agents of Coldwell Banker Burnet haven’t mastered this rule at all.
The template they’re following is to show a photo of the agent and the agent’s name, followed by a colon and the list of qualities. The last quality is always “real estate agent”, which is a noun, so the words that proceed it should be nouns, too. Here’s a case in which they got it right:
Okay, so you might not feel like Jim’s just the guy for you because he’s a “father” and a “leader” but at least there’s nothing linking him with people unaware of how English works.
Not so for the Hansens here. They get one of those coveted have-children noun, but then comes an adjective (and not a particularly consumer-friendly one at that), followed by the noun. (You could argue that “real estate agent” is a noun modified by an adjective, too, but let’s just call it a plain noun to avoid making this even more maddening.)
The majority of the Coldwell Banker Burnet ads follow the pattern that Sarah Schoback’s billboard displays: 1) adjective 2) adjective 3) noun. It’s not quite as cringe-worthy as some others, but it’s definitely off. Because of it, the billboards are not packing quite the punch they might.
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.