On this day in 1846, the United States and Britain signed the Treaty of Oregon, which established the 49th parallel as the international boundary separating British North America and the United States’ Pacific Northwest. Beginning in 1818, the Oregon Territory — the region which today covers British Columbia and the states of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho — was jointly occupied by the United States and Britain. In 1844, little known Democratic candidate for president James J. Polk ran a campaign based on the expansion of the United States and the fulfillment of the nation’s manifest destiny. Polk’s slogan was “Fifty-Four Forty or Fight!” based on his campaign promise of expanding U.S. territory to the northern boundary of the Oregon Territory at latitude 54 degrees, 40 minutes.
Once Polk won the presidency, however, he became less bellicose. Facing the prospect of a war with Mexico in the south, Polk sought to avoid a potential war with Great Britain by agreeing to a compromise that extended the 49th parallel border from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean.
On a day where we remember how the 49th parallel helped establish harmony between two nations, we should also remember how the concept of parallelism can bring harmony to writing.
Parallelism is a big word for a simple concept: It simply refers to the repetition of structure within a sentence or paragraph. Notice, for example, how the following words from John F. Kennedy’s 1960 inaugural address are coherently packed into a single sentence using parallel verb phrases:
Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival of the success of liberty.
Notice how each three-word phrase follows the same pattern of VERB – ADJECTIVE – NOUN. Notice also how the repeated structure creates balance and rhythm and clarity.
The following two famous sentences employ parallelism. The first from Lincoln employs parallel participial phrases, and the second from F.D.R. features parallel adjectives:
This nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth. -Abraham Lincoln
The only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. -Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Even a simple park sign can demonstrate how parallelism can communicate ideas more clearly. Notice which part of the list below breaks the parallel pattern:
By changing “PICK-UP LITTER” to “NO LITTERING” we now have a more balanced and clear list:
Writing a sentence is like packing a suitcase. There is an art to getting everything in the bag — not just getting it in, but keeping it all organized and accessible. Parallelism is the secret weapon for writers who pack sentences, not suitcases. It helps them to pack a lot of ideas into a sentence in an orderly, logical way.
Parallelism is more than just a grammatical concept; it’s a rhetorical concept that not only allows the writer to be more clear, but also allows the writer to be more profound. As Lucile Vaughan Payne says in her book The Lively Art of Writing:
Parallel structure, fully understood and put to use, can bring about such a startling change in composition that student writers sometimes refer to it as “instant style.” It can add new interest, new tone, new and unexpected grace to even the most pedestrian piece of writing.
Today’s Challenge: I Came, I Saw, I Conquered Parallelism
What is a movie that you know well enough and like enough to write the text of a movie trailer for? Write the text of a voice-over for a movie trailer for one of your favorite movies. Use parallelism to add some rhythm and resonance to your preview. The following example is a movie trailer for Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark:
Mourning his dead father, berating his clueless mother, and continually contemplating the murder of his remorseless, treacherous, and lecherous uncle, Hamlet is not having a good day! Something, indeed, is rotten in the state of Denmark, and it’s not just the fish from last week’s dinner that has been festering in the corner of the Castle Elsinore’s kitchen.
(Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)
Quotation of the Day: All writers fail, on occasion, to take advantage of parallel structures. The result for the reader can be the equivalent of driving over a pothole on a freeway. What if Saint Paul taught us that the three great virtues were faith, hope, and committing ourselves to charitable work? -Roy Peter Clark