March 12, 2009

Weekly Language Usage Tips: parallel sentence structure & direct and clear writing

Posted in direct and clear writing, parallel sentence structure, parallelism at 7:32 am by dlseltzer

I came across a terrific web site the other day. I wanted to check the etymology of a word for WLUT, and when I googled it, one of the sites that came up was OneLook.com http://www.onelook.com/. When you enter a word or phrase, OneLook queries a slew of on-line dictionaries and provides the results on one page. From their HELP page:

Think of this web site as a search engine for words and phrases: If you have a word for which you’d like a definition or translation, we’ll quickly shuttle you to the web-based dictionaries that define or translate that word. If you don’t know the right word to use, we’ll help you find it. No word is too obscure: More than 5 million words in more than 900 online dictionaries are indexed by the OneLook® search engine.

I was looking up task to see if it is widely accepted as a verb (it is), and OneLook found it in 39 dictionaries in a flash. A very nice reference.

Sightings:

Curt reports some pleonasms heard on NPR and spoken by Daniel Schorr:

general consensus

connected together

Idiot tech writer

I’m not going to comment on idiot tech writer. People in glass houses…you know.

Pam also heard a pleonasm on NPR that I find highly entertaining.

almost semi-corrupt

And I heard one on NPR yesterday morning.

new innovation

Shucks, and I wanted to learn about the old innovation. The question I have is: is it NPR that makes lots of grammatical mistakes or is just that lots of us evidently listen to NPR?

Today we have a combination of tips; we will cover two separate points, but they share the same examples.

Tip 1: Parallel sentence structure

Parallel sentence structure (also called parallelisms) involves using the same pattern of words or phrases for a series of connected ideas. An example of a sentence without parallel structure is this:

The purpose of this research is to 1) conduct a literature review, 2) to carry out a needs assessment survey, 3) developing an appropriate intervention, and 4) planning to pilot test the intervention.

An example of parallel sentence structure is this:

To carry out this research, I will 1) conduct a literature review, 2) carry out a needs assessment survey, 3) develop an appropriate intervention, and 4) pilot test the intervention.

Good writing requires the use of parallel structures. Too often, I see, especially in proposals and in PowerPoint slides, sentences and phrases that do not have parallel structures.

What difference does it make?

Parallel structure adds impact to what you are saying. It shows that each idea has the same level of importance. It allows the reader to better understand the content. And parallel structure adds focus and balance.

Look what happens when we don’t use parallel structure (this is from a proposal, I recently reviewed-some of the words have been edited out to protect the guilty, but the sentence structure is real).

Specific aims 1-4 will follow sequential steps; first, investigating the associations among the four psychosocial constructs. Second, examine the associations of each of these constructs with screening behavior. Third, and to the extent possible, explore the associations of these constructs and neighborhood level factors using multilevel modeling techniques. Finally, the fourth aim uses a qualitative approach to examine a subset of individuals who did and did not follow through with screening in a community-based setting.

First, let’s ignore the phrase and to the extent possible. It is problematic, but it is a completely different problem. So this is what we have:

first, investigating

second, examine

third, explore

Finally, the fourth aim uses a qualitative approach

Not parallel. And the lack of parallelism weakens the ideas the writer is trying to convey and makes the concept harder for the reader to understand. It is also clumsy and awkward.

The writing can be strengthened and made more graceful in a number of ways. For example, see A, B and C, below.

Tip 2: Direct and clear writing

Good writing is focused and clear. Most of the time, the active voice is the strongest, and using the active voice is the best approach. But even when using the active voice, some words or forms of words can weaken the thought being conveyed. Here is an improved version of the above sentence.

A. Specific aims 1-4 will follow sequential steps: first, we will investigate the associations among the four psychosocial constructs. Second, we will examine the associations of each of these constructs with screening behavior. Third, we will explore the associations of these constructs and neighborhood level factors using multilevel modeling techniques. Finally, fourth, we will use a qualitative approach to examine a subset of individuals who did and did not follow through with screening in a community-based setting.

I use the first person in A because it is assertive, direct, and connotes action. There are, of course, other ways to write this while maintaining a parallel structure.

B. Specific aims 1-4 have the following goals: first, to investigate the associations among the four psychosocial constructs; second, to examine the associations of each of these constructs with screening behavior; third, to explore the associations of these constructs and neighborhood level factors using multilevel modeling techniques; and fourth, to use a qualitative approach to examine a subset of individuals who did and did not follow through with screening in a community-based setting.

B is also strong and suggests engagement.

Another way of stating this while achieving direct and clear writing is to use bullets.

C. Specific aims 1-4 have the following goals:

  • To investigate the associations among the four psychosocial constructs;
  • To examine the associations of each of these constructs with screening behavior;
  • To explore the associations of these constructs and neighborhood level factors using multilevel modeling techniques; and
  • To use a qualitative approach to examine a subset of individuals who did and did not follow through with screening in a community-based setting.

The following sentences say the same thing, but the writing is less vibrant.

D. Specific aims 1-4 involves the following sequential steps: first, investigating the associations among the four psychosocial constructs; second, examining the associations of each of these constructs with screening behavior. Third, exploring the associations of these constructs and neighborhood level factors using multilevel modeling techniques. Fourth, using a qualitative approach to examine a subset of individuals who did and did not follow through with screening in a community-based setting.

E.  Specific aims 1-4 will follow sequential steps: first, the investigation of the associations among the four psychosocial constructs. Second, an examination of the associations of each of these constructs with screening behavior. Third, the exploration of the associations of these constructs and neighborhood level factors using multilevel modeling techniques. Finally, fourth, the use of a qualitative approach to examine a subset of individuals who did and did not follow through with screening in a community-based setting.

D and E are correct (and use a parallel sentence structure); however, they are weaker and not as direct or active as A, B, and C. The activity is made separate from the author in these examples, that is, we know that something will occur, but it is not clear who will make it occur. As a result, these examples have less substance than the others and are less effective.

4 Comments »

  1. Language Traditionalist (aka Alan Meisel) said,

    Re: OneLook.com. Any website that can generate 39 dictionaries that think that task is a verb is worse than useless. Task may be used as a verb, but it *is* not a verb.

  2. Chris said,

    Thank you for the detailed explanation! Very helpful!

  3. Arradsabups said,

    Good Day.
    Verry interesting article, i have bookmarkes your blog for future referrence. Best regards

  4. Hey! I was looking over to your page and it looks so good to be part of your class session. Moreover I want to know if you can add some practical exercises for beginners and for ESL people like me who are trying to master my skill in English languages. In the mean time thank you for this page on parallel sentences – I need to learn on how to build them how to join them and how can benefit to me that usage of it, all i can say is thank you.


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