How parallel construction can go awry

Recognizing and correcting a false series in your writing—and in others’.

Recognizing and correcting a false series in your writing—and in others’

A common problem in modern writing is the false series. It happens when a writer combines three or more seemingly related elements in a series, but the syntax is wrong. When you get the sentence right, you’re using parallel construction.

Huh? OK, here’s an example: “Today I will tidy up the bedroom, the living room, and wallpaper the cat.”

Sounds like a series of three things to accomplish. And yet, there’s something off. The construction doesn’t quite work. It’s as simple to detect as Sesame Street’s “One of these things is not like the other.”

A proper series

In a series, we list three (or more) things that serve a common purpose within a sentence: “I’m going out to buy an anvil, a lava lamp, and three dozen kumquats.” Each of the elements, despite their being disparate items, performs the same function, that of the object of the verb form “will buy.” I will buy an anvil. I will buy a lava lamp. I will buy three dozen kumquats. You could bullet-point them, if you so chose.

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