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

Jakob Straub
Jakob Straub, Content Writer

Parallelism enhances your communication by repeating grammatical structures, boosting clarity and memorability in both writing and speech. This technique not only emphasizes key points but also contrasts ideas, plays with rhythm, and introduces wit. It acts as a versatile tool in the literary toolkit, applicable in a variety of contexts. However, you must use it carefully to avoid the pitfalls of faulty construction, which can obscure meaning. To refine your writing, explore parallelism examples from famous speeches, films, and literature, and discover its power to transform your expression.

Definition of parallelism: what is it?

Parallelism involves using similar or repeated grammatical structure across words, phrases, clauses, or sentences, like in the phrase “Easy come, easy go.” It’s more than just repetition of the same word; it’s about creating balance, rhythm, and clarity, making ideas easier to grasp and remember. For instance, repeating a word, as in “You are a fool, a fool, a fool!” showcases simple repetition. In contrast, true parallelism, seen in “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me,” employs a mirrored sentence structure that elevates the expression, offering both emphasis and contrast in a harmonious way.

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Specific types of parallelism

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

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    Anaphora sets the stage by echoing words at the start of clauses, spotlighting them for emphasis, as in "In time we will prevail, in time we will be victorious."

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    Antithesis introduces a dance of opposites within parallel structures, creating a striking contrast with examples like "Man proposes, God disposes."

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    Asyndeton cuts the conjunctions, leaving a trail of related but unlinked ideas, as Julius Caesar's succinct "Veni, vidi, vici" illustrates, while its counterpart, syndeton, embraces these connectors for effect.

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    Climax takes us on an ascending journey, arranging elements so each surpasses the last in significance, much like Shakespeare's layered importance in "O'erthrows thy joys, friends, fortune and thy state."

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    Epistrophe, or epiphora, mirrors anaphora by repeating phrases at sentence ends, a tactic Barack Obama famously used with his rallying "Yes we can."

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    Symploce blends the beginning and end by employing both anaphora and epiphora, wrapping sentences in a symmetrical embrace of repetition.

Parallelism in grammar and rhetoric

In the grammatical sense, parallelism refers to the grammatical structure of a sentence construction with parallel elements, typically made up of 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 two or more ideas or phrases. For further clarity, correlative conjunctions can highlight the relation between the parallel elements. 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 sneaks in when your writing aims for parallel structure but misses the mark in grammatical structure. It often pops up in lists, mixing different forms like nouns with gerunds or infinitives. Take the following example:

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

Here, “thinking out of the box” doesn’t fit smoothly with the list of nouns; “innovation” might be a better choice.

Sometimes, writers intentionally play with faulty parallelism for effect. Syllepsis, for example, stretches a word across two parts of a sentence in a grammatically tricky way, as in Tennyson’s “He works his work, I mine,” where an expected repetition is skipped, hinting at an ungrammatical “I works mine.”

Zeugma, on the other hand, is a clever twist where a word serves dual roles in a sentence, juggling literal and figurative meanings. The playful “Time flies like an arrow, fruit flies like a banana” uses “flies” and “like” in different ways across its two parts, crafting a witty confusion. Similarly, Groucho Marx’s quip, “Outside of a dog, a book is a man's best friend. Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read,” plays on the shifting grounds of prepositions, mixing literal and figurative meanings in a delightful display.

Why use parallelism in writing?

Parallel structure has long been a favorite tool of speakers, simplifying structures to captivate and guide an audience's focus toward the core message. Its magic works just as potently as a literary device in writing, where a parallel construction can boost readability and breathe rhythm, harmony, and balance into your prose. Through the deliberate repetition of elements—be it words or phrases—writers can inject pace, poetic flair, and emphasis directly into the fabric of their language.

Take, for instance, the power of comparison and contrast. Parallelism shines a light on the ties between ideas, whether tangible or abstract, spotlighting their similarities and disparities with ease. "She loves reading, he loves gaming; two passions, one household."

And what about intentionally jarring your reader with faulty parallelism? Far from a mistake, it's a crafty pivot that can halt readers, prompting reflection, laughter, or a moment of wonder through clever wordplay or humorous twists. Parallelism, in all its forms, is not just a stylistic choice—it's a storyteller's strategy to enchant and engage.

Parallelism examples

Parallelism enriches our language, evident in proverbs like “No pain, no gain” and “In for a penny, in for a pound”. Parallelism examples are commonplace in both everyday speech and across works of literature. This rhetorical device, popular among orators, enhances speeches, films, and literature with its symmetry. For example, the phrase "To err is human; to forgive, divine," illustrates parallelism's elegance and effectiveness in conveying complex ideas succinctly and powerfully.

Memorable speeches

Famous speeches often employ parallel structure to captivate and inspire. In the Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln masterfully uses this sentence structure, notably with epistrophe in "government of the people, by the people, for the people," and anaphora in the series of "we can not" phrases, enhancing the speech's rhythm and emphasis.

Martin Luther King Jr.'s iconic "I have a dream" speech is a perfect parallelism example, particularly through the recurring start of sentences, an example of anaphora that underpins his vision with unforgettable rhythm. King's speech also leverages parallel construction to highlight contrasts, as seen in "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere," strikingly balancing ideas of scope and impact.

John F. Kennedy, in his 1961 inaugural address, crafted a memorable example of parallelism with "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country," directly contrasting personal contribution against national benefit. Similarly, Winston Churchill's resolute speech during World War II employed parallelism, repeating "We shall fight" in various contexts to underscore determination and resilience.

Neil Armstrong's first words on the moon, "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind," present a parallel construction that contrasts the individual action with its monumental significance for humanity, highlighting both the moment's humility and grandeur.


In film, parallel structure enriches narratives and dialogue, as seen in the memorable line from Forrest Gump, “Stupid is as stupid does.” This literary device shines in screenplays, especially during pivotal soliloquies— whether it's a coach rallying a team, a politician inspiring citizens, or a lawyer persuading a jury. Parallelism, through its repetition of grammatical elements, aids audiences in comprehending and feeling the weight of these moments.

Visual parallelism in cinema contrasts characters, amplifies tension, and accelerates pacing. For instance, simultaneous action sequences, achieved through parallel editing or cross-cutting, heighten excitement. Inception by Christopher Nolan masterfully demonstrates this with its layered dream sequences climaxing together.

Parallel editing can also mislead, as seen in Silence of the Lambs and The Fugitive, where viewers are tricked into expecting an imminent arrest that unfolds differently. Historical and contemporary films alike, such as The Great Train Robbery and The Godfather, have leveraged parallel editing to build suspense.

Screenwriters also weave parallel structures throughout their stories to deepen themes or mirror subplots, like Batman's crusade against crime in response to his own tragedy. Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith and the TV series Lost and House employ parallel narratives to enrich character development and plot progression.

While split-screen or picture-in-picture techniques are rarer today, films like Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and Requiem for a Dream use them creatively, paying homage to various storytelling forms or creating intimacy and humor, as in Annie Hall. Through these techniques, films leverage parallelism to craft more engaging and multi-layered stories.


In literature, parallelism crafts memorable lines and profound insights. Alexander Pope’s “To err is human, to forgive, divine” exemplifies this by contrasting human fallibility with the virtue of forgiveness, omitting the repetition of the verb for poetic effect. Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities starts with “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” using nearly identical clauses to depict an era of stark contrasts.

Parallelism examples extend to historical figures like Julius Caesar’s “Veni, vidi, vici,” and into Shakespeare’s portrayal of Brutus in Julius Caesar. Brutus uses parallel structure to rationalize his actions: “As Caesar loved me, I weep for him... But, as he was ambitious, I slew him.” This logical sequence culminates in a justification for Caesar’s assassination based on his ambition.

In Pygmalion, George Bernard Shaw utilizes parallelism when Professor Higgins challenges Eliza Doolittle with a choice, phrased in a mirrored grammatical construction: “If you can't appreciate what you've got, you'd better get what you can appreciate.” This inversion highlights the contrasting options available to Eliza, encapsulating the dilemma in a succinct, memorable manner. Through these examples, parallelism in literature serves not just as a stylistic device but as a means to deepen narrative complexity and character development.

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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 ideas.

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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