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Parallel Structure

People love making lists, particularly when those lists involve either things to do or things not to do. Woody Guthrie’s fine list of “New Years Rulin’s” (1943) included 33 commands (available online for your perusal). Each command appears in the imperative tense, including “save dough, change socks, and love everybody.” His list uses precise parallel construction, unlike those of nearly all the rest of us.


  • They love writing, dancing, and to read.
  • I told her to focus, write well, and to turn in her essay on time.
  • Stop doing these things: playing with your phone and don’t fidget.


Once you have launched a list, stay consistent. If you love to write, dance, and read, you don’t need to to set off the last one. If you told her to focus, to write well, and to turn in her essay, keep the parallels. Lastly, when we tell someone what to do and what not to do, we shouldn’t mix negatives and positives freely. Oops.


The reason parallel construction is important has to do with the need to indicate equal importance in a list. If you have ever said “I need cat litter, food, and water, but not in that order,” you recognize that cat litter is fairly far down on the list of things you need to live. If you say “I need food, water, and clothing,” the parallel structure suggests that each one is important.

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