“Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.”
—Louis L’Amour

Parallelism: Keep Your Verb Tenses Consistent

A few weeks ago, our group of friends was planning a potluck. One of the girls said she was planning on making vegetarian chili, cornbread, or baking cookies. I cringed internally because the flow of the sentence was wrong and hurt me on the inside. The issue: mismatched parallelism.

parallelism

How to Keep Your Verbs Consistent

Parallelism is the practice of lining up all your verb tenses when you have a list of them in one sentence. For example, if you’re on your way to the store and you need to get apples, you might find yourself heading straight to the produce section, investigating each apple for bruises, and putting the best four you can find in your cart.

See how the verbs match tense and form? In this example, all the verbs are in their gerund form, leading to a nice flow of both words and ideas.

What you would not do is head to the produce section, investigating each apple, and put the best ones in your cart, unless you already had the apples in your possession before migrating to the produce section.

Get Your Parallelism Straight

Another common example or bad parallelism comes when you, as my friends and I have done, are planning a potluck. You email your friends and volunteer to bring salad, bread, or make dip.

You mean well in your offer, but your parallelism is not good. Because you started with “bring” as your head verb, it needs to remain your head verb for all items in the list. This can be remedied with some rewriting: you can bring salad, bread, or homemade dip. Alternatively you can tell your friends that you’ll bring salad, bake bread, or make dip.

In the first corrected sentence, all objects (salad, bread, dip) are being acted on by the same verb (bring). In the second corrected sentence, each object is being acted on by its own verb (bring salad, bake bread, make dip). Either is an acceptable way to correct a lack of parallelism.

The Purpose of Proper Parallelism

The purpose of proper parallelism is the same as that of any grammatical structure: to provide structure and understanding for the reader.

And making sure the parallelism in your phrases matches up results in less brain work for the reader.

What do you like to bring to a potluck? Share in the comments.

PRACTICE

Decide before you start your practice if you’re going to have all of your objects be acted upon by the same verb, or if each object is going to have its own verb. Sticking only to that parallel structure, write for fifteen minutes and use parallelism as much as humanly possible. If you’re feeling brave, post your practice in the comments; if you post, don’t forget to check out the work of your fellow writers!

About Liz Bureman

Liz Bureman has a more-than-healthy interest in proper grammatical structure, accurate spelling, and the underappreciated semicolon. When she's not diagramming sentences and reading blogs about how terribly written the Twilight series is, she edits for the Write Practice, causes trouble in Denver, and plays guitar very slowly and poorly. You can follow her on Twitter (@epbure), where she tweets more about music of the mid-90s than writing.

  • Liz

    I’m usually pretty good about this … until I start editing. Then I start a sentence one way, change my mind in the middle, and type that. By the time I’ve done that a few times, my work looks like I flunked fourth grade English. THEN I go back and fix each sentence one at a time. What a difference that makes … also, when finished “let it cool,” then do another read through. Repeat until you can do two read-throughs without finding any errors.

  • Mary

    I like to bring unusual dishes to a potluck. There are always more than enough devilled eggs. But I usually bring my offering home, cook and contents feeling co-rejected. One such attempt was Baba Ganouj, a Middle Eastern dip served with Pita Bread wedges. Even the fresh, Trader Joe’s bread came home with me.
    Encouraged by the few more adventuresome guests who at least asked “What’s that?” I brought it again to my next event; this time posting a tent card listing the ingredients. The card read: eggplant, tahini, garlic, lemon juice, parsley and olive oil. Non-threatening I thought. I thought wrong.
    Last weekend when I was asked to “bring something” I brought a huge platter of devilled eggs. The platter was licked clean.
    Mary

    • 709writer

      Your recipes sound great! Keep serving ’em – I know I like to try new foods. : )

  • LaCresha Lawson

    Yes. Completely understood. Thank you. Writing is such an art…….☺

  • Jeanne Doyon

    Very helpful because I do this without thinking 🙂
    As for the potluck, my favorite thing to bring, aside from my appetite, is a Greek salad.

  • KatSteve

    When I go to a pot luck I like to bake brownies, marinate some chicken, and bring extra napkins, but not necessarily in that order.

    • 709writer

      Ha, brownies (chocolate), my weakness. Do you make them soft, chewy, or crispy? The soft kind is my favorite. Nice parallelism you did there, too!

  • A.R.A

    I don’t always get invited to a pot luck; but when I am, I toss Tabbouleh, make Tiramisu, and cook Couscous.

    • Mary

      A.R.A. I’d like an invitation to your potluck. Mary

    • 709writer

      I like Couscous, I just tried it for the first time not long ago. It’s filling and it tastes good, too.

  • 709writer

    Amy chopped a few more veggies for the salad. “This’ll be a perfect appetizer for our potluck,” she said as she stood at the kitchen sink.

    “Yep.” Sonic the Hedgehog skinned twenty potatoes for mashing, hacked them into chunks, and plopped them into the pot of boiling water over the stove. “I invited Knuckles and Shadow. They should be here in a little while.”

    Amy pivoted, holding her kitchen knife in the air. “Why’d you invite them? Shadow’s always so serious, and Knuckles is either losing his temper, yelling his lungs out, or scarfing down the desserts.”

    “Nothing wrong with scarfing,” Sonic said with a shrug.

    Amy swiveled one eye toward Sonic, making it bulge out quite unnaturally and causing Sonic to draw back.

    “Unless it’s Knuckles doing the scarfing, that is,” Sonic said. He flashed his million-dollar grin.

    There were two knocks at the door.

    Sonic was a streak of light as he zipped into the living room. Smiling, he opened the front door to let in his friends.

    ~~

    I don’t have many potlucks, but at Thanksgiving I like homemade mashed potatoes, cherry pie, stuffing…I’m getting hungry now. : )