Parallelism (peh-ruh-LEL-iz-um) is a grammatical and rhetorical term for creating a sense of linguistic balance by repeating elements within a sentence, over the course of several sentences, or in a longer work or speech.
In grammar, it refers to ensuring agreement in elements like number, verb tense, and adjective types. Maintaining this balance keeps writing clean, concise, and comprehensible. The rhetorical definition involves using this balance as a device to make speeches and works of literature more impactful.
Examples of Parallelism
You may recognize some of these common sayings, all of which contain parallelism:
- “What you see is what you get.”
- “Easy come, easy go.”
- “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”
- “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.”
How to Create Parallelism
As mentioned, parallelism applies to similar elements within a sentence. Typically, parallelism is found in a running list. Within the list, all objects should be balanced, whether they all appear as nouns, verb phrases, infinitive phrases, etc.
The following examples showcase how to craft parallelism with a few specific elements.
Parallelism with Adjectives
Consider this sentence: “The bowl of charms contained red balloons, clovers, and moons.” This example is unbalanced because there are three nouns but only a single adjective. It’s unclear if all three things—the balloons, clovers, and moons—are red.
To balance the sentence, the adjective red can be removed—“The bowl of charms contained balloons, clovers, and moons.”—or color adjectives can be applied to all three nouns—“The bowl contained red balloons, green clovers, and blue moons.”
Verbs Functioning as Nouns
When verbs are used as nouns in a sentence, they can appear as gerunds (verbs using –ing) or in the infinitive (the verb’s base form). But, if a sentence mixed gerunds and infinitives, it wouldn’t be utilizing parallelism. For example: “The changeling loved singing, exploring, and to help animals.” is a sentence that uses verbs as nouns. However, by using both gerunds and infinitives, the sentence’s language is unbalanced.
Because the rules of grammar would suggest using only one to in a running list of infinitives—so, “to sing, explore, and help animals” rather than “to sing, to explore, and to help animals”—the better option is to use all gerunds. Thus, the sentence would become “The changeling loved singing, exploring, and helping animals.”
But, an even better option would be to make all the gerunds verb phrases, as “helping animals” is a verb phrase. So, the best version of the sentence would be “The changeling loved singing lullabies, exploring caverns, and helping animals.”
Adjectives are words that describe certain aspects of nouns. They can indicate certain objective attributes of the noun, like its size, shape, color, or they can describe a noun’s subjective value. When it comes to parallelism, adjectives that apply to a single noun should all be of the same type.
In the example sentence “The package was large, brown, disheveled, and ominous,” the first three adjectives describe the package’s objective appearance. However, the final adjective, ominous, describe something subjective. To achieve parallelism, ominous can be removed and/or replaced with another objective descriptor, like heavy or bulky.
Literary Devices that Use Parallelism
- Anaphora: This device achieves parallelism by using repetition at the beginning of each phrase or sentence. Consider this example: “I forgave you when you lost my cat, I forgave you when you left me at the airport, and I forgave you when you threw out my favorite stuffed animal.” The repeated use of I forgave you when you is parallelism.
- Antithesis: This is parallelism that relies on opposites. “That curry is heaven on the tongue but hell in the tummy.” plays on the oppositional dichotomy of the concepts of heaven and hell.
- Asyndeton: This device repeatedly omits conjunctions. The sentence “I’m intuitive, I’m perceptive, I’m good at math, I have no poker face.” contains no conjunctions, creating parallelism because each phrase begins with I’m and describes something about the speaker.
- Epistrophe: This is similar to anaphora, except the repetition occurs at the end of phrases or sentences. By using the phrase eating pancakes repeatedly, this example achieves both epistrophe and parallelism: “I love eating pancakes, my partner feels like eating pancakes, and we just saw a commercial where people were happily eating pancakes.”
- Symploce: This is combination of anaphora and epistrophe, so parallelism is created by using a repeated element at the beginning of phrases and a different repeated element at the end of the phrases. “Man created religion, man questioned religion, man attacked religion, and man defended religion.” Each phrase begins with the word man and ends with a past tense verb and the word religion.
Parallelism in Speeches
Parallelism is commonly used in rhetoric as a way of using repetition and balance to persuade a debate opponent, a reader, or even the public at large. As a result, the device is often used in political speeches.
For example, Barack Obama used asyndeton to add strength and rhythm to his inaugural speech when he said, “My fellow citizens: I stand here today humbled by the task before us, grateful for the trust you have bestowed, mindful of the sacrifices borne by our ancestors.”
Examples of Parallelism in Literature
1. Tishani Doshi, “Girls Are Coming out of the Woods”In this short but powerful piece, Doshi repeats “Girls are coming out of the woods” six times. The rhythm and repetition, along with the vivid descriptions of the girls’ histories, presences, and actions, conjures an image of an army of girls marching through the streets to take back what has been stolen from them:
Girls are coming out of the woods,
wrapped in cloaks and hoods,
carrying iron bars and candles
and a multitude of scars, collected
on acres of premature grass and city
buses, in temples and bars. Girls
are coming out of the woods
with panties tied around their lips,
making such a noise, it’s impossible
to hear. Is the world speaking too?
2. Langston Hughes, “Let America Be America Again”
Led off with the hauntingly timely repetend “Let America be America again,” this poem uses parallelism throughout, starting with “Let it be” anaphoras:
Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.
In the last stanza, before ending on the amended chorus, Hughes uses asyndeton to list what is rightfully the people’s to reclaim:
Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!
3. Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried
In his collection of interconnected short stories, O’Brien explores themes of grief, trauma, and brotherhood during the Vietnam War. This succinct quote uses anaphora to express the senselessness of trying to make sense of life during combat:
To generalize about war is like generalizing about peace. Almost everything is true. Almost nothing is true.
4. Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”
Along his lengthy journey to Self, Whitman asserts his worth and his humanity through a series of “I” statements:
I celebrate myself, and sing myself, And what I assume you shall assume, For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.
5. Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Wester Front
Appropriately, mortality is one of the main themes of Remarque’s World War I novel. Here, the main character is describing the rain, nature, as it works to wash away the pain and suffering mankind brings upon itself:
It falls on our heads and on the heads of the dead up in the line, on the body of the little recruit with the wound that is so much too big for his hip; it falls on Kemmerich’s grave; it falls in our hearts.
This examples relies on the repeated use of prepositional phrases.
Further Resources on Parallelism
American Rhetoric offers definitions of parallelism and other rhetorical figures, along with examples from historical and fictional political speeches you can read and listen to.
To really feel the power of parallelism in “Let America Be America Again,” listen to poet Danez Smith read it, courtesy of The Loft Literary Center.