Editing Tutorial No. 5 — Parallelism

Thank you for visiting my business writing blog. Parallelism is covered in Sentence Diagrams – Tutorial No. 1 of 20 April and Editing HR Jargon of 7 March. If you’re not familiar with parallel structures, please read the other posts as well as this one.  

This tutorial also features the most maligned of English punctuation marks – the semicolon. I also press you – once again – to read your copy aloud when editing. So many times I’ve literally heard a problem that I didn’t see when reading silently. Have somebody else read your work back to you, if you can. Listen with your eyes closed.

For a change of pace, I’ll show you a headline and subhead this time. And it comes from the world of online journalism rather than from business. The site is Slate.com, one of the most intelligent of the USA commentary outfits. The example was posted by Matthew Yglesias on 14 May 2012:

Why Are Teen Moms Poor?                                                                              Surprising new research shows it’s not because they have babies. They have babies because they’re poor.

On a wild guess I’d say the writer wanted the subhead to be parallel. It’s so close, just not close enough.

This one is journalistic, but a head’s a head. You’ll be writing many for business documents. The same principles apply to both genres. The purpose of a head is to give the reader enough information to encourage her to read the body copy.

In this case I think the lead question gets in the way. The crucial fact of most heads is news, so I’d make the research the headline:

   Surprising new research:

Then I’d turn the original question into a statement. And I’d make that statement a parallel mirror-image of the second half of the subhead:

   Teen moms aren’t poor because they have babies.                                                       They have babies because they’re poor.

A diagram of the two sentences shows the parallelism most dramatically. Remember that negative verbs are diagrammed as if they were positive statements. For clarity, I’ve written contractions out in full.

Now for the semicolon. Here’s the simple rule for using this elegant punctuator:

Use a semicolon INSTEAD of a comma-and-conjunction, to separate independent clauses in a single sentence.

I want to put the two sentences together as one. They are essentially a single thought, expressed as two, mirror-image clauses. And running them together WITHOUT a conjunction, emphasises the parallel structure.

But first, here’s how it would look – and sound (read it aloud) – WITH a conjunction. In this case, we’d use ‘but’, to highlight the fact that the second clause countermands the first:

Teen moms aren’t poor because they have babies, but they have babies because they’re poor.

Now we’ll replace ‘but’ – and its comma – with the semicolon. See how much more elegant it looks. Hear how much better it sounds.

Teen moms aren’t poor because they have babies;                                                       they have babies because they’re poor.

Now add the edited headline, and we have a grabber with highly tuned parallel structure:

Surprising new research:                                                                                                 Teen moms aren’t poor because they have babies;                                                         they have babies because they’re poor.

The story is a good read, with some enlightened treatment of research and statistics. It’s a wake-up call for those who trust their instincts instead of the numbers. Here’s the URL:

http://www.slate.com/articles/business/moneybox/2012/05/teen_moms_how_poverty  _and_inequality_cause_teens_to_have_babies_not_the_other_way_around_.html

The video has all of this in living colour and stereo sound. You can buy my book at http://thecopymentor.com

Thanks again for visiting.


About Copymentor

Australian and US copywriter, creative director and author
This entry was posted in Editing, English, Grammar, Sentence Diagrams and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Editing Tutorial No. 5 — Parallelism

  1. Mark says:

    G’day John,

    love your blog, but your lack of an obvious call to action to sign up to it is almost criminal. After looking all over the page, I thought, well he obviously doesn’t want people to subscribe [and yes I didn’t punctuate that last sentence.]

    Eventuality I saw the small “Follow” button hidden at the bottom of the page. “Well, at least I can follow him on Twitter,” I thought.
    Imagine my surprise when all manner of options to Subscribe, Like and Follow magically appeared after I clicked on it. Happy Days.

    Still, have a chat to Drayton about better calls to action.

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