When you write a list or series, the elements should be in parallel form. If they’re not, you have “faulty parallelism.” For proper parallelism, here are the rules:
- Each element in the list or series flows naturally from the lead-in, and
- Each element in the list or series begins with the same part of speech (verb, preposition, noun, and so on).
Here’s an example:
a. A lawyer must disclose adverse authority that is known to him, arises from the controlling jurisdiction, and that was not disclosed by opposing counsel.
If we tabulate (put each element on its own line), we can easily identify faulty parallelism:
b. A lawyer must disclose adverse authority that
-is known to him,
-arises from the controlling jurisdiction, and
-that was not disclosed by opposing counsel.
Example b has flaws in both requirements. The third element doesn’t follow from the lead-in: that . . . is, that . . . arises, that . . . that. And the first words of each element aren’t the same part of speech: is and arises are verbs; that is a pronoun.
Consider two ways to fix it. First, you could repeat the lead-in word (that) each time:
c. A lawyer must disclose adverse authority that is known to him, that arises from the controlling jurisdiction, and that was not disclosed by opposing counsel.
It works, but it’s a little heavy on the use of that. Second, you could revise so each element begins with a verb:
d. A lawyer must disclose adverse authority that is known to him, arises from the controlling jurisdiction, and was not disclosed by opposing counsel.
Now the first word of each element fits the lead-in and all are the same part of speech. We have parallelism.
Whenever you write a list or series—typically with three or more elements—practice parallelism. It’s consistent and logical, of course, but it also reduces miscues and eases reading by creating balance and consistency. Opportunities for pleasing parallel structure are common in legal writing and can take many forms:
- A simple list: We can send the client an e-mail, a letter, or a memo.
- A series of phrases: Writers create emphasis by repetition, produce clarity with simple words, and enhance persuasion through clear organization.
- A series of clauses: The trial judge granted summary judgment, the appellate court affirmed it, and the Supreme Court reversed it.
- A numbered list, like the one you just read. (Note that each numbered item began the same way.)
Another form of basic parallelism that recurs in legal writing is the use of correlative expressions, also called correlative conjunctions. The most common are both/and, not only/but also, either/or, and neither/nor. In these pairs, A and B should be the same part of speech: both A and B, not only A but also B, either A or B, and neither A nor B. For example:
e. Many lawyers are not only smart but also think creatively.
f. Many lawyers are not only smart but also creative.
Example e isn’t parallel: not only smart (adjective) but also think (verb), and the faulty parallelism makes it clumsy. But example f is parallel, making it shorter and giving it force. Here’s one more example:
g. She testified that she made neither a withdrawal nor did she make a payment.
h. She testified that she made neither a withdrawal nor a payment.
Example g is faulty because what follows neither is an article and noun (a withdrawal) but what follows nor is a verb (did). Example h is parallel, producing a shorter and more forceful sentence.
Short and forceful, balanced and consistent—these are the rewards of parallel structure.
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