Not many people know what parallelism is. It’s certainly not a common feature of most English lessons, and you won’t find it mentioned in many textbooks. However, it is definitely useful when you are trying to prepare for IELTS.
The reason is that parallelism is used to make writing better. It can be considered a sort of “fine-tuning” approach to make decent writing into very good writing. It is the sort of thing that you should be thinking about when you aim for a band 7, 8, or 9.
In the article below, I’ll tell you how to improve your IELTS writing score by using parallelism.
What is Parallelism?
Parallel means two things (lines, objects, etc) running next to each other, having the same space between them at all points. For example, look at the word “parallel” itself – the two ls in the middle are parallel to one another! Remember the spelling of the word, and you can remember its meaning; remember the meaning of the word and you can remember its spelling! There aren’t many words in English as convenient as that.
If two things are parallel, then we could consider them to be similar like objects in a mirror. Thus, parallelism in writing means parts of a sentence which have the same features.
If this sounds difficult, don’t worry. We’ll look at some rules and some examples, and I promise that by the end of this lesson you’ll have it all figured out.
Rules of Parallelism
There are a few important things to remember in parallelism, and they fortunately adhere to a few simple rules. Basically, when you are creating a list or a comparison, you want to create balance and simplicity in the sentence by having all parts the same. That means:
Keep nouns with nouns
Incorrect: He enjoys football more than playing baseball.
Correct: He enjoys football more than baseball.
Why? In the first (incorrect) example, we have a noun (football) for the first part, and then a verb (playing baseball) for the second. We need to either make both parts nouns or both parts verbs.
Keep verbs with verbs, and keep them the same tense
Incorrect: Last weekend we ran, swam, and went bowling.
Correct: Last weekend we ran, swam, and bowled.
Correct: Last weekend, we went running, swimming, and bowling.
Why? In the incorrect example we are mixing verb tenses. Although we have three verbs and no nouns or adjectives, it is important to keep the verbs in the same tense. In the second example, which is technically correct, we use the past simple (ran etc) but it sounds a little weird. In the third example, we use past continuous, where the “-ing” form of all three verbs is the same.
Keep adjectives with adjectives
Incorrect: The movie was fascinating and informed me about a lot of things.
Correct: The movie was fascinating and informative.
Why? In the incorrect example we mix adjective (fascinating) and verb (informed), whereas in the correct example we change to the adjective form (informative) so that we have two adjectives.
Articles and prepositions must apply to the first item in a list, or to all items
Incorrect: The Chinese, the Japanese, Koreans, and Mongolians all come from East Asia.
Correct: The Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, and Mongolians all come from East Asia
Incorrect: He looked in the fridge, on the counter, and stovetop for his dinner.
Correct: He looked in the fridge, on the counter, and on the stovetop for his dinner.
Why? One of the important functions of parallelism is keeping a sentence logical and easy to understand. Switching from using articles and prepositions to not using them is confusing. We need to either use them with the first item in a list (such as in the first correct example above) or with all of them (such as in the second correct example).
Note: Sometimes it is ok not to use parallelism. If you want to vary your language, you may occasionally “break the rules” but other rules are much firmer. The last one (about articles and prepositions) should not be broken or else your writing will sound very bad.
An Extra Rule
This is not technically part of parallelism, but in parallelism you might see a lot of commas used. I always use the Oxford Comma because it makes one’s writing so much clearer and more logical. I highly recommend you use it, too.
When to Use Parallelism
Here I will explain some situations when we can employ the above four rules to make our writing better. These types of situations will arise in all sorts of writing, including – potentially – both tasks in the IELTS writing exam.
In pairs and lists
If you are using “or” or “and” to form a list of items or ideas, you should ensure that all items or ideas in the list are presented using the same or similar form.
Incorrect: He is good at studying history, English, and speaking French.
Incorrect: He is good at studying history, in English class, and French.
Correct: He is good at studying history, English, and French.
Why? Hopefully by now we can see the problems with the first two examples. When you’re making lists like this, and include multiple items or ideas, we have to watch out for mistakes like these.
Incorrect: Walking home is as fast as to drive.
Correct: Walking home is as fast as driving.
Incorrect: Buying an iPhone is almost as expensive as a new laptop.
Correct: An iPhone is almost as expensive as a new laptop.
Why? Make sure that the two things you’re comparing (walking and driving; iPhones and laptops) are presented in the same fashion. This looks different from the list form previously explored, but the technique for fixing mistakes is just the same.
With paired words
Incorrect: Learning IELTS by watching TED videos is both interesting and a convenience.
Correct: Learning IELTS by watching TED videos is both interesting and convenient.
Incorrect: She said she’d prefer to work hard to learn English than failing her exam.
Correct: She said she’d prefer to work hard to learn English than fail her exam.
Why? Once again, we can see how different items in a sentence must be presented as parallels – ie with the same structure. With paired words we often see “and,” “either,” “rather,” and so on, used to join words or phrases. Make sure that these are the same; for example, in the first instance we needed two adjectives, and in the second we needed the verb tenses to be the same.
For some great examples, visit Grammar Bytes. They have a good test for you to make sure you fully understand how to recognise and fix faulty parallelism.
Why Use Parallelism in IELTS?
The IELTS writing exam is a fantastic test of English proficiency. There is no way to cheat or trick the system. You simply have to demonstrate your English level by writing an honest piece of work. The examiner will mark you on the following criteria:
The last point on the list is “grammatical range and accuracy.” This means having a variety of sentence structures (simple, compound, complex, compound-complex) and a mastery of verb tenses. Parallelism is something that most students don’t fully understand, yet it is not difficult to learn. I teach this to my students in one 90 minutes class, and by the end of the lesson they understand it so well they are sick of my examples!
Like learning how to use a comma or semi-colon, it is not difficult, yet it is quite impressive. Your examiner will see your writing and mark you higher than other students on that basis.
Of course, as I said, there is no cheating the system – if all you know how to do is make your writing parallel and punctuated, it doesn’t help. But it is a huge boost to your armoury of English language skills and will be a pleasant surprise for the examiner.
Check your IELTS Writing Skills
If you are worried about your IELTS writing abilities, including how to use parallelism, then you should try my writing correction service. It’s the best way to improve your chances of a good score in the writing exam.
An IELTS Example of Parallelism
Look at the following line graph, which was taken from an actual IELTS exam paper. Let’s examine how we might use parallelism in our answer.
The line graph shows the unemployment rates in both the United States and Japan between March, 1993, and March, 1999. It compares changes in the percentage of people who were unemployed in these countries over a six year period.
Can you find any examples of parallelism? Well, for a start we have listed two countries. Here’s an example that makes the first sentence incorrect:
The line graph shows the employment rates in both the United States and also Japan between March, 1993, and 1999.
Why is that incorrect? Well, when we begin “both the United States…” we don’t need then to say “and also Japan.” Parallelism tells us we need the two items equally weighted in the list. Then we move to the start and end dates. For the first we give a month and year, but for the second only a year.
Let’s look at another incorrect example from later in the essay:
As a general trend, the chart shows that while the unemployment rate in the United States gradually decreased over the period shown, in Japan there was a significant increase.
Why is this incorrect? Because in the first part we use the phrase “gradually decreased” (an adverb+verb) and in the second we say “a significant increase” (adjective+noun). We should rephrase it to give parallelism thusly:
As a general trend, the chart shows that while the unemployment rate in the United States gradually decreased over the period shown, in Japan it significantly increased.
Let’s correct the following faulty parallelism from:
According to the data from the graph, in March, 1993, 7% of Americans were unemployed, whereas the unemployment rate in Japan was just 2.4%.
According to the data from the graph, in March, 1993, 7% of Americans were unemployed, whereas just 2.5% of Japanese were unemployed.
Now try to write your own description of the graph, and pay attention to your use of parallelism.