Writing

Writing 101: What Is Parallelism?

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 22, 2019 • 4 min read

Parallelism—the repetition of grammatical elements—is key in good writing and effective public speaking. Parallelism impacts both the grammar of sentences as well as the larger presentation of ideas.


What Is Parallelism in Writing?

Parallelism is the repetition of grammatical elements in a piece of writing to create a harmonious effect. Sometimes, it involves repeating the exact same words, such as in the common phrases “easy come, easy go” and “veni, vidi, vici” (“I came, I saw, I conquered”). Other times, it involves echoing the pattern of construction, meter, or meaning.

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What Is the Definition of Parallelism?

The definition of parallelism is based on the word “parallel,” which means “to run side by side with.” There are two kinds of parallelism in writing—parallelism as a grammatical principle and parallelism as a literary device.

What Is Parallelism In Grammar?

Sentences are easier and more pleasant to read if there is an agreement in their grammatical structure, particularly when it comes to lists. This principle is known as parallelism, parallel structure or parallel construction. For example:

  • Faulty parallelism: “The finale was illogical, rushed, and it disappointed.” (Two adjectives and a verb.)
  • Successful parallelism: “The finale was illogical, rushed, and disappointing.” (Three adjectives.)

What Is Parallelism as a Literary Device?

Writers sometimes use parallelism as a figure of speech that goes beyond just the grammatical structure of a sentence. They might repeat a word or several words at the start of successive clauses—a type of parallelism known as “anaphora.”

It’s possible to also put opposite ideas into parallel positions within a sentence, bringing attention to their contrasting character. For example, Neil Armstrong’s line when he first stepped onto the surface of the moon: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

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What Is the Purpose of Parallelism in Writing?

Writers use parallelism, alongside other literary devices such as assonance and alliteration, to create flow and rhythm.

  • Parallelism is particularly popular among orators because it usually simplifies the structure of sentences, so the speaker can hold an audience’s attention for longer and present their message in digestible terms.
  • Parallelism also useful when a writer wants to emphasize the relationship between two or more ideas. It can set up a comparison or contrast between two things.

3 Examples of Parallelism in Famous Speeches

It is no accident that some of the most famous speeches in history contain examples of parallelism. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech is based on a type of parallelism called anaphora, where the same word or words starts a series of successive clauses or phrases. Here is an excerpt:

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal.” I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

The same type of parallelism features in Winston Churchill’s stirring World War II-era address, “We Shall Fight on the Beaches”:

We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.

John F. Kennedy’s inaugural presidential address also features a good example of parallelism. Kennedy doesn’t repeat words: it’s purely the symmetry in the grammatical structure and ideas that make this a successful parallelism.

Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.

This extract also contains an example of a particular kind of parallelism called antithesis, where the two parallel elements express opposite ideas. “Whether it wishes us well and ill” and “support any friend, oppose any foe” are antithetical elements here.

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2 Examples of Parallelism in Literature

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Literature and poetry are full of parallelism examples. A good starting point is William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, where Mark Anthony gives this famous speech at Caesar’s funeral:

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones.

Shakespeare uses multiple types of parallelism—first, the parallel construction in the list of nouns with which Mark Anthony addresses the crowd. Then, he twice employs antithesis: “to bury” and “to praise”, followed by a comment on both “evil” and “good” legacies.

Another famous parallelism example is from the opening to Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.

Dickens combines anaphora with antithesis, starting successive clauses with “it was the” and going on to use contrasting descriptions.

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