I. What is Parallelism?
Parallelism, also known as parallel structure, is when phrases in a sentence have similar or the same grammatical structure. In its most basic usage, parallelism provides a phrase with balance and clarity. Parallelism also serves to give phrases a pattern and rhythm.
That’s one step for man, one giant leap for mankind.
When Neil Armstrong first stepped foot onto the moon, he said what would become a famous quote. In this example, parallelism occurs in the repetition of “one … for ….” Both phrases also follow the same grammatical structure:
One step (action) for (preposition) man (noun)… one leap (action) for (preposition) mankind (noun).
This parallelism gives it a memorable rhythm and repetition.
II. Examples of Parallelism
For a first example of parallelism, read this excerpt from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous speech:
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
This, too, is an example of parallelism, as each paragraph begins with the evocative phrase “I have a dream,” and is followed by a noun phrase and the verb “will.” The shared grammatical structure from phrase to phrase gives this speech a rhythm that makes it more powerful, inspiring, and memorable.
For a second example, consider a quote from Mother Teresa:
Every time you smile at someone, it is an action of love, a gift to that person, a beautiful thing.
In this example, parallel structure is used to list the effects of a smile:
- an (indefinite article) action (noun) of (preposition) love (noun)
- a (indefinite article) gift (noun) to (preposition) that person (noun)
Once again, it is the parallel grammatical structure which creates a truly memorable phrase.
III. The importance of using Parallelism
Simple uses of parallelism create readable and understandable passages. Sentences are best understood when structured in a grammatically parallel fashion. More importantly, though, parallelism also provides prose, poetry, and speeches with symmetry that the human eye and ear both crave. Such symmetry creates sentences that are rhythmic and repetitive. This musicality creates memorable and quotable phrases, as can be seen in quotes from Armstrong, King, Teresa, and others.
IV. Examples of Parallelism in Literature
Parallelism is a prominent feature in prose, poetry, speeches, and plays alike.
For an example of parallel structure in poetry, see the following excerpt from E.E. Cummings’ poem “[love is more thicker than forget]”:
love is more thicker than forget
more thinner than recall
more seldom than a wave is wet
more frequent than to fail
it is most mad and moonly
and less it shall unbe
than all the sea which only
is deeper than the sea
love is less always than to win
less never than alive
less bigger than the least begin
less littler than forgive
This poem has various instances of parallelism. The phrase “love is” creates parallelism when it is repeated at the beginning of two stanzas. Successive phrases containing “more” and “less” also serve to create parallel structure. This use of parallel structure builds upon the idea of what love is with numerous descriptions that attempt to describe something beyond description.
For a second example of parallelism, read this excerpt from Paul Violi’s poem “Appeal to the Grammarians”:
We, the naturally hopeful,
Need a simple sign
For the myriad ways we’re capsized.
We who love precise language
Need a finer way to convey
Disappointment and perplexity.
For speechlessness and all its inflections,
For up-ended expectations,
For every time we’re ambushed
In this section, Violi utilizes parallelism in two ways. First, he begins sentences with “we” in order to emphasize an entire group of people’s support. Secondly, he repeats “for” in order to illustrate how numerous the various applications of the inverted exclamation point are. Both uses of parallelism give the poem a strong rhythm.
V.Examples of Parallelism in Pop Culture
Parallelism is a common element in songs which use the device for rhythm, catchy repetition, and musicality.
For an example of parallelism in song, listen to “Vindicated” by Dashboard Confessional:
In this song, the repetition of “I am” provides the chorus with rhythm. It also serves to emphasize the speaker’s triumphant feelings of self-awareness in a way that is stronger than “I am vindicated, selfish, wrong, and right.”
For a second example of parallelism in song, listen to Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World”:
Louis Armstrong’s song is full of parallelism which matches the song’s lulling but joyful rhythm. Repetition of “I” followed by senses such as “I see,” “I hear,” and “I watch” provides the song with a simple but effective parallel structure.
VI. Related Terms
Parallelism is a simple structural guideline often used in more advanced constructions. Here are a few examples of parallelism as it is used in similar devices.
Anaphora is a specific type of parallelism in which the same word or phrase is repeated at the beginning of successive sentences.
Here are a few examples of anaphora:
- Be strong. Be brave. Be courageous!
- Give all of your energy. Give all of your time. Give everything you have to give.
- She’s my best friend. She’s the love of my life. She’s my wife.
In the above examples, parallelism and anaphora are used in the repetition of “be,” “give,” and “she’s” at the beginning of successive phrases.
Epistrophe is a specific type of parallelism in which the same word or phrase is repeated at the end of successive sentences.
Here are a few examples of epistrophe:
- When you fail, you must be kind. When you succeed, you must be kind.
- This is not just his issue. It’s not just your issue. It’s everyone’s issue.
- On my birthdays, I eat pizza. On good days, I eat pizza. And on bad days, I eat pizza.
In these examples, repetition of “be kind,” “issue,” and “I eat pizza” at the ends of sentences creates parallelism in the form of epistrophe.
VII. In Closing
Parallelism provides phrases with grammatical symmetry. This symmetry creates a rhythm and repetition which can make phrases more catchy, memorable, or compelling. Parallelism may be found in creative pieces such as poetry and songs as well as more formal pieces such as formal papers and speeches.