Parallelism: What Is It and How to Use It in Your Writing

Jakob Straub
Jakob Straub, Content Writer

Parallelism repeats grammatical elements, for example in speaking or writing. Such a parallel construction can enhance readability and make it easier to convey an idea effectively. As a figure of speech, it can emphasize and create memorable phrases.

Parallelism as a literary device can also contrast ideas and elements, play with rhythm and create humorous or witty puns. Since there are several ways to achieve parallel constructions, various figures of speech fall under the broad term parallelism. However, there are grammatical pitfalls, and faulty parallelism can sound clunky or obscure. Improve your writing through the use of parallelism and learn from our examples from famous speeches, films, and literature.

Definition of parallelism: what is it?

Parallelism means a parallel construction in which similar or repeated words, phrases, clauses, or sentence structure appear. The common saying, “Easy come, easy go” is an example of parallelism. This figure of speech allows for an effective understanding of the elements that are emphasized or contrasted. It can provide a sense of balance or rhythm and enhance readability and ease of processing.

The literary device of parallelism goes beyond simple word repetition: “You are a fool, a fool, a fool!” only repeats one phrase, separated by commas, but has no other grammatical, parallel elements. Parallelism repeats grammatical elements, or sentence structure: “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.”

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Specific types of parallelism

There are distinct literary terms to describe literary devices which make up specific types of parallelism.

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    Anaphora literally means "carrying back". This parallel construction repeats words at the beginning of a clause to emphasize them. "In time we will prevail, in time we will be victorious."
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    Antithesis as a literary device introduces two opposites for contrast. This can happen in a parallel construction: "Man proposes, God disposes."
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    Asyndeton refers to the "unconnected" and uses deliberate omission of conjunctions in a series of related clauses or ideas. The individual parts can be of parallel construction. "Veni, vici, vici" by Julius Caesar is an example of asyndetic parallelism. The opposite is syndeton, which repeats coordinating conjunctions.
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    Climax, as a figure of speech, arranges parallel elements in order of increasing greatness or importance (also: auxesis, meaning "growth"). "O'erthrows thy joys, friends, fortune and thy state" (from Richard II by William Shakespeare).
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    Epistrophe is also known as epiphora and constitutes the opposite of anaphora. A word or phrase is repeated at the end of a sentence, therefore emphasizing that part. Barack Obama made use of that rhetorical device in his "Yes we can" speech where parallel sentences were each followed by this emphatic phrase.
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    Symploce combines anaphora and epiphora, repeating words or phrases at both the beginning and end of a series of parallel constructions.

Parallelism in grammar and rhetoric

In the grammatical sense, parallelism refers to the grammatical structure of a sentence construction exhibiting parallel elements, typically comprising verb phrases, nouns, infinitives or gerunds. Commas can separate the individual elements or a coordinating conjunction (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so) can form the connection. To avoid faulty parallelism, the grammatical elements in parallel need to agree with each other, and not pair two nouns with a verb, for example.

Beyond the grammatical form, parallelism in rhetoric and literature can balance or contrast phrases or ideas. For further clarity, correlative conjunctions can highlight the relation between the parallel elements. By itself, the parallel structure alone will usually have the effect of an assumed balance or stark contrast in the mind of the reader or listener.

Faulty parallelism

Faulty parallelism occurs when you aim for a parallel construction in your writing but break the grammatical structure. This happens frequently in lists, for example, when naming a series of nouns that includes one gerund or an infinitive. Consider the following example:

Our company values are excellence, trust, transparency, and thinking out of the box.

Not only is “thinking out of the box” standing out grammatically in the sequence of nouns, but it’s also a longer phrase, even when rearranged to “out-of-the-box thinking.” A more fitting word here might be “innovation.”

Writers can use faulty parallelism on purpose to create a literary device, though grammatically incorrect. A syllepsis uses one word for two parts of a sentence, though incompatible: “He works his work, I mine” (from Tennyson’s Ulysses) is a parallel construction in which the repetition of the verb is omitted (ellipsis). The implied “I works mine” is ungrammatical.

Similarly, zeugma uses a single word in two parts of a parallel construction, though with a difference in meaning, often playing on the literal and the figurative. Zeugma is a grammatically correct parallel construction but will stump readers or listeners with the perceived incorrectness because of the difference in meaning.

Time flies like an arrow, fruit flies like a banana.

The sentence is an example of ambiguous syntactic structure by linguist Anthony Oettinger, though it’s often attributed to comedian Julius Henry "Groucho" Marx. It contains a double zeugma: the first half of the parallelism uses ‘flies’ as a verb and ‘like’ as a preposition, whereas the second half repeats these words as a noun and a verb.

Groucho Marx also often receives credit for some version of the joke, “Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.” In this example of faulty parallelism, the preposition ‘outside’ is used figuratively (in the sense of ‘apart from’), whereas the meaning of ‘inside’ is literal.

Why use parallelism in writing?

When you look at our examples below, you see that parallelism is popular among orators: the simplified structure makes a speech easy to follow for the audience and focuses their attention on the most important parts.

Parallelism in writing has a similar effect. The parallel construction increases readability. Just as in a speech, it conveys a sense of rhythm, harmony and balance. The repetition of grammatical elements such as words or phrases allows the writer to vary the pace, add poetic language and add emphasis on the level of grammar and language.

The literary device of parallelism also speaks to the relationship between the things set up in the parallel construction. The writer can compare and contrast concrete and abstract things and draw attention to similarities and differences.

The deliberate use of faulty parallelism can also stop the reader in their tracks, break the flow, and make them ponder the words and the idea they describe. This doesn’t have to be philosophical, though. It can create humor, nonsense, or be a witty pun.

Examples of parallelism

Examples of parallel structure are common in everyday sayings and proverbs. “No pain, no gain,” “In for a penny, in for a pound,” “Where there is smoke, there is fire,” and “It takes one to know one” are all parallel constructions. Because the rhetorical device is popular among orators, we’ll list examples from speeches, as well as from film and literature.

Memorable speeches

Famous examples of parallelism in speeches include Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. It features epistrophe in the phrase “government of the people, by the people, for the people”, and anaphora in “We can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground.”

“I have a dream” by Martin Luther King, Jr. is another famous example with parallel structure: the repeated use of the phrase at the beginning of his sentences constitutes another epistrophe. He also showed contrast through parallelism: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

In his inaugural address in 1961, President John F. Kennedy also contrasted two opposing ideas in parallel structure: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” Winston Churchill uses parallelism as both epistrophe and auxesis, hammering on his message: “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.”

Neil Armstrong’s famous words as he set foot on the moon are also a parallel construction that puts great emphasis on the meaning of his statement and the greatness of the achievement his one step signified: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” The parallelism contrasts the difference in momentum and movement, as well as the individual against the collective.

Film

“Stupid is as stupid does” is a commonplace saying and parallelism that appears in Forrest Gump as a repeated line. Parallelism as a rhetorical device will work well in your screenplay when a character has to deliver a memorable soliloquy: a coach motivating a team, a politician convincing their people, a lawyer imploring the jury—these are all great scenes where parallel structures can make it easy for the audience to grasp the gravity of the moment and follow the speech.

Visual parallelism in film allows you to show contrast, create tension, intensify the action, increase the pace, or interweave storylines. Two or more action sequences happening at once create excitement for the audience. In your script, you can execute parallel action by introducing two or more scenes and actions with their locations and descriptions in their headings. You can use INTERCUT to show the parallel cross-cutting and END INTERCUT to conclude such a sequence.

Christopher Nolan's Inception is an example of cross-cutting to show the simultaneous action in the various dream levels, moving towards the climax of "the kick" that has to happen at once on all levels.

Parallel editing can also deliberately mislead the audience. Silence of the Lambs features preparations for an FBI raid inter-cut with Buffalo Bill in his basement. The first assumption of viewers is that his arrest is imminent, but the further progression of the scene reveals the FBI raiding an empty house, while agent Clarice Starling confronts Buffalo Bill alone. The movie The Fugitive features a similar arrest scene.

An early example of parallelism in movies is The Great Train Robbery from 1903, where the editing technique builds suspense. Francis Ford Coppola uses parallel editing in The Godfather to inter-cut Michael Corleone at a baptism with murders carried out by his henchmen.

As a screenwriter, you're not limited to visual parallelism, however. Parallel structures can appear throughout your story. Batman, for example, fights crime because his parents were the victims of crime. In a plot parallel, the B story features a miniature repetition of the A story.

In Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, Grievous is partly removed from a mechanical suit and set on fire. Anakin is set on fire and put into a mechanical suit. In the TV show Lost, the development on the island is paralleled in the flashback or sideways plot in nearly every episode. In the show House, the doctor typically has a main patient and will discover the key to their cure through parallelism in the B plot of that episode.

Split-screen or picture-in-picture scenes are less common today as forms of visual parallelism, though they appear in modern cinema. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World uses the technique almost as a homage to various forms of storytelling, such as comic books, animation, and video games. Requiem for a Dream relies heavily on montages and creates intimacy by dividing the screen. Annie Hall tells a romantic story and uses split-screen scenes for comedic effect.

Literature

“To err is human, to forgive, divine” is a famous example of parallelism by English poet Alexander Pope, which omits the repetition of the verb in the second half. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens opens with the famous first line, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” The clauses in this parallel structure are nearly identical, yet contrast in their meaning. The author memorably and effectively conveys the sense of a period that varied between extremes.

We’ve already mentioned the parallel “Veni, vidi, vici” by Julius Caesar. In his play about the Roman emperor, playwright William Shakespeare has Brutus speak in a parallel structure to justify his decision of murdering Caesar. “As Caesar loved me, I weep for him. As he was fortunate, I rejoice at it. As he was valiant, I honor him. But, as he was ambitious, I slew him.” Brutus responds rationally to Caesar’s traits. By the logic of the parallel structure, it then also seems reasonable that he should die for his ambition.

In Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw, Professor Higgins tells his ‘guinea pig’ Eliza Doolittle: “If you can’t appreciate what you’ve got, you’d better get what you can appreciate.” The grammatical structure is parallel, but the playwright inverses the wording to contrast the ideas. Essentially, Higgins puts a choice in front of Eliza: warm up to him or pursue someone else.

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How to use parallelism in your writing

Parallel structures help you introduce clarity and concision in your writing. Parallel phrases shorten sentences and enhance readability. Through balance, you can create harmonious and satisfying sentences, or highlight the similarity between two things. However, parallelism can also bring out the contrast between two opposing elements.

Parallelism lets you play with the rhythmic pattern of sentences, but in screenwriting, you can also increase the pacing of your script or inter-cut fast and slow action. Connect details in a way that makes them stand out and give your story structure a logical flow with parallelism.

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