The careful technical writer always uses parallel construction in paragraphs, lists, and even sentences. For sentences that are just good grammar. So what is parallel construction?

Parallel sentences

According to my oldest textbook on technical writing, a sentence is parallel if its coordinated elements are expressed in the same grammatical form. By creating and maintaining a recognizable pattern for the reader, parallelism makes the sentence easier to follow.

The Global English Style Guide calls the parallel structure ‘using syntactic tokens’, which essentially says the same thing as the previous paragraphs. However, by saying “syntax tokens”, you can really see that the way something is written becomes part of the syntax or pattern of the document.

Here are some examples:

Non-parallel statements

  • Our current system is costing us profits and reducing our productivity. (non-parallel verbs)
  • The dignitaries watched the launch and the crew was applauded. (non-parallel voice)
  • The typist must follow the printed instructions; do not change the work of the creator. (non-parallel mood)

Parallel statements

  • Our current system is costing us profits and reducing our productivity.
  • The dignitaries watched the launch and applauded the crew.
  • The typist should follow the printed instructions and not change the author’s work.

That should give you an idea about parallel sentence structures. Now let’s look at parallel lists.

Parallel lists

The parallel structure in the lists means that the list has a standard pattern throughout. The following incorrect example is pretty egregious, but you get the point.

Incorrect

Windows offers several ways to open documents:

  • You can open your document from the program you used to create it.
  • Use the My Recent Documents command in the Start menu to open a document you have recently used.
  • Tea Look for command in the Start The menu locates the document and then you can open it.
  • Double-clicking a document icon in My computer open a document.

Correct

Windows offers several ways to open documents:

  • Open your document from the program you used to create it.
  • Use the My Recent Documents from the Start menu to open a document you have recently used.
  • Use the Look for command in the Start menu to locate the document and then open it.
  • Double-click a document icon in My computer.

Notice that in each correct example, the sentences are imperative. Believe it or not, despite how you feel when it’s your mother speaking, readers prefer the imperative.

Parallelism in paragraphs, topics, and documents

The best way to make your reader comfortable is to establish a pattern for all the information. All paragraphs in the same section should have the same voice and mood. All topics should follow the same pattern. All documents must have the same structure. This takes the drama out of writing, but let’s face it, when you need information now, who needs drama?

For example, if your document has a chapter that begins with a heading, a short introductory sentence, and a list of the information found in the chapter. All chapters must have that structure. Otherwise, it is very obvious that you have multiple authors or a totally clueless person writing your document. The advantage is that once you establish a pattern, it is easier to write and read.

Also, once you’ve established a pattern, readers can pay attention to the information and not even notice the writing. Isn’t that the goal of true technical writers? If not, it certainly should be.

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