Special Problems in Coherence: Balance and Symmetry
(see APA pp. 29, 4346; NYPL pp. 584586)
General Rule: A balanced, symmetrical structure can facilitate the communication of meaning; the lack of balance and symmetry weakens the coherence of the text, making the reader struggle to understand it. Use parallel structures to present parallel ideas.
1. Coordinating and correlative conjunctions: Coordinating conjunctions (the most common are and, or, and but) and correlative conjunctions (pairs such as either/or, neither/nor, not only/but also) are used to join parallel grammatical structures. That is, they can join a word to a word, a phrase to a phrase, or a clause to a clause. They should not be used to join a word to a phrase, a phrase to a clause, and so on. Coordinated structures that are not parallel should be rewritten.
- example: Jordan was among the first in his class to finish the assignment, and Shauna and Yoshiko too.
note: The word group before the and is an independent clause. The word group following the and is simply a phrase. This sentence is an example of faulty parallelism.
cf.: Jordan, Shauna, and Yoshiko were among the first . . . . (and joins 3 subjects)
Among the first in their class to finish were . . . . (and will join 3 predicates)
Jordan was among the first. . . , as were Shauna and Yoshiko. (and joins 2 equal parts of a compound subject)
- example: The class not only produced a book of poetry but also a play.
note: The words following not only are a verb and direct object; those following but also are simply a noun and its article.
cf.: The class produced not only a book of poetry but also a play.
The class not only produced a book of poetry but also presented a play.
Not only did the class create a book of poetry; it also produced a play.
2. Elements in a series: Elements in a series should also be parallel in structure (for example, a series of three nouns is fine; a series of three verbs is also correct; but a series of two nouns and one verb is incorrect). A series whose elements are not parallel should be rewritten.
- example: Students were asked to read a short selection, look up the definitions of any words they found difficult, and finally they were instructed to write a new sentence for each word they looked up.
cf.: Students were asked to read X, to look up Y, and to write Z.
Students were asked to read X, look up Y, and write Z.
Students were asked to X, were shown how to Y, and were instructed to Z.
Sometimes what appears to be a simple problem of asymmetric structure is really a more serious case of underlying incoherence. Consider the example below:
- example: The assessment is designed to measure the students ability to read a short paragraph, summarize what they have read, and to determine their approximate reading level.
note: Parts of the sentence seem to discuss a series of student abilities, but other parts look more like a series of items the assessment is designed to accomplish. This sentence has to be rewritten.
3. Comparisons: Items being compared should be parallel in form and content. Those that are not should be rethought and rewritten.
- example: School children in Japan spend much more time in class than in the United States.
note: What is being compared here? As written, the sentence compares the amount of time Japanese school children spend in class with the amount of time they spend in the United States. If this is the authors intent, the sentence is correctly written. Otherwise, one of the following structures would be preferable.
cf.: School children in Japan spend much more time in class than do children in the United States.
Japanese children spend more time in class than their American counterparts.
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