What is parallelism?

Parallelism is a rhetorical device used in writing for the purpose of creating balance or equality in the construction of a sentence. Parallel refers to something being identical or similar in key aspects, and is at the heart of what parallelism tries to achieve.

Parallelism used in ancient times

Parallelism has been used throughout history and is attributed to many famous sayings that are universally recognized. The phrase veni, vidi, vici is attributed to the Roman emperor Julius Caesar after winning his battle against Pharnaces II of Pontus.


Translated, veni, vidi, vici means “I saw, I came, I conquered” – a sentence that rests heavily upon it’s symmetric and balanced form. Parallelism is not limited to sentences that are grammatically the same throughout; sentences that are sound, meter, and meaning can be parallel as well. Such use of parallelism has been extensively used in politics.

Examples of Parallelism

Three examples are:

  • The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessing; the inherent virtue of socialism is the equal sharing of miseries.” (Churchill)

Here, Winston Churchill illuminates to the hypocrisies of both capitalism and socialism, highlighting how the successes of one economic system leads to downturn of another system. Ultimately, neither capitalism nor socialism is perfect.

  • “…and that government of the peopleby the peoplefor the people, shall not perish from the earth.” (Abraham Lincoln)

Abraham Lincoln uses parallelism effectively in his Gettysburg address to emphasizing that the federal government is a product birthed from democracy and is a right that cannot be taken away.

  • Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.

In his inaugural address, Kennedy uses parallelism in order to inspire every American, and instill the importance of civic duty and public service, challenging them in some way to contribute towards the public good during the shadow of the Cold War.


Common mistakes associated with parallelism

Often, people fail to make sentences parallel due to verb tenses not making chronological sense. For instance:

1.) I was thinking of to run.

The verbs in the above sentence are mismatched and create a jarring effect in the sentence. This is often called “faulty parallelism.”

Coordinating conjunctions are especially useful in making parallel sentences. Conjunctions such as and, but, and or are commonly used:

1.) She likes to look but not to listen.

2.) We wondered who he was and what he was doing here.

Lists or series use parallel structure:

1.) The frustrated customer wanted to exchange the article, to obtain a refund, or to speak to the manager.

2.) There was no opportunity to do homework, to request an extension, or to explain my situation.

3.) The salesman expected that he would present his product at the meeting, that there would be time for him to show his slide presentation, and that prospective buyers would ask him questions.

Parallel structure is also commonly associated with comparisons:

1.) How much money you make is not as important as how you live your life.

2.) I like swimming better than running.

Parallelism is an important tool for writers allowing them to create phrases or paragraphs that create the right rhythm and balance to present ideas in a concise and smooth manner. In addition, it can be used as an effective means of proving a point or as a means of persuasion.

Overall, it can make your writing less clunky and laborious, and for a final example:

“You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.” (Abraham Lincoln)


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