Avoid Train Wreck Sentences with Parallelism | Duncan Koerber | Skillshare

Avoid Train Wreck Sentences with Parallelism

Duncan Koerber, University Professor

Avoid Train Wreck Sentences with Parallelism

Duncan Koerber, University Professor

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10 Lessons (29m)
    • 1. Course Overview

    • 2. Introduction to Parallelism

    • 3. Surface vs Under Surface Parallelism

    • 4. Verb Series

    • 5. Noun Series

    • 6. Adjective Series

    • 7. Adverb Series

    • 8. Preposition Series

    • 9. Multiple Element Series

    • 10. Parallelism Conclusion

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About This Class

Do your editors or teachers say you write "run-on sentences" or "comma splices"? Do you feel your writing lacks structure or meanders aimlessly? In this course I show the solution to these problems: parallelism. Parallelism is the use of equal grammatical units in patterns. 

Parallelism has been used for centuries by great orators and writers to create a sense of stability in language. Parallelism also helps listeners and readers remember passages better. Some of the most memorable language – like Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech – utilize parallelism extensively. 

This course presents a number of simple parallel series that you can incorporate immediately into your writing. Get your sentences back on track!

Meet Your Teacher

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Duncan Koerber

University Professor


Dr. Duncan Koerber has taught writing and communications courses for the past 10 years at six Canadian universities to thousands of students.

Currently a full-time assistant professor at Brock University in Ontario, Canada, Duncan Koerber worked for nearly 10 years in reporting and editing roles for the London Free Press, the Mississauga News, and the University of Toronto Medium. He has freelanced for magazines and newspapers, including the Toronto Star.

Oxford University Press recently published his writing textbook, Clear, Precise, Direct: Strategies for Writing (2015). Available on Amazon, the book considers the seven most common errors (interfering factors) in writing and how to improve them (enhancing factors). His second book, Crisis Communication... See full profile

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1. Course Overview: Have you ever had someone say that you have a run-on sentence or a comma splice. So they just didn't understand what you were saying in a sentence. You might have, in that case, a train wreck sentence. And this course is all about how to avoid those train wreck sentences. In this video, I just want to give you an overview of this course. This course focuses on an understudied or under taught concept in English writing, and that is parallelism. Parallelism, as I'll show you in this course, is about using chromatically equal elements to create a very pleasing sound and create an order in your sentences. Great orators like Barack Obama, for example, use a lot of parallelism in their speeches. And typically this is seen as something used in speeches. But you can make your writing on the page really poetic and structured and ordered and grammatically correct by using parallelism. So this is a lesson at the grammatical level, very simple but also very powerful. I'm going to show you in this course how to add parallelism to your writing. And primarily You do this through what are called series. So I'm going to talk about what a series is, just a hint. It's a list of grammatically similar elements. We're going to do things like verb series and noun series. And then they're going to get more progressively difficult or complicated. And this idea of the series, you know, this can go on and on. You can come up with all kinds of series that I don't even talk about in this course. So your creativity is your only limit. So I encourage you first before you try this out to watch all the videos. You want to get this concept down from the very simple and it's gonna seem very simple when you talk about Verbs series. But watched from the simple to the complex. And then try it out. Do the project that's associated with this course. 2. Introduction to Parallelism: If you've got one of those typical grammar books, those big ones and probably has 200 to 300 grammar or style concerns listed in it. Now, out of all of those, I think one of the most interesting ones that doesn't get enough notice amongst all the other things you can read in the grammar books is the idea of parallelism. So if you find sometimes that you are writing very long sentences that are a bit awkward. Or if a teacher or editor has ever said, you write run-on sentences and perhaps you have an issue called faulty parallelism. And I really want to focus on this and discard a lot of the other things that you read in the grammar books. Because if he can master parallelism, you can write in almost a poetic style that is very easy to understand and avoids all those grammar problems. So simply put, parallelism is the use of two or more identical grammatical elements in a pattern. So I'd like to come up with a metaphor, the train tracks. So if you've noticed train tracks, they have to be obviously parallel. The two tracks have to be parallel to each other. Otherwise the train runs off the rails. Now this is a really simple idea and it may sound very basic, but it's rarely taught in schools today. But without parallelism, just like the train, your sentences and fall apart. So with parallelism, the writer repeats a set of verbs for a set of nouns or any other part of speech to create a pattern that is pleasing to the ear, to the mind. One of the most famous examples of parallelism is the speech by Martin Luther King. So I recommend you go onto YouTube right now. Pause this video and playback the speech by Martin Luther King called I Have a Dream. Now he is making this speech decades and decades ago about race, about the American nation. But if you go through it, it's not just an informational speech. And he does make some points about things that he wants to happened with race relations, but actually there's a lot of parallelism in it. And one of the most obvious forms of parallelism in this is the repetition of the title or WES, Well, we came to know is the title and that is I have a dream. So if you see on the slide some examples from this speech, you can see that I have a dream repeated a number of times. So parallelism can occur in terms of repeating the exact words twice or three times for emphasis, certainly it makes an emphasis point here that he has this dream. I here is the subject or dewar, and the sentence of the action, the have Is the action itself, and then the receiver or the object of the sentence and grammatical terms is a dream. So of course, if you're going to repeat that phrase, you're also repeating the underlying structure. Sometimes parallelism can occur in the underlying grammatical structure that most people don't even notice see repeating a verb and a verb, but of course, the meaning of those verbs is different. Let us look at another example from King's speech that is a little bit more nuanced. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content, their character. So in that case, we have parallelism in a couple of spots. Now there's the repetition of noun, but then there is a slight variation there with the next noun, which is skin, and that shifts two characters. They're both nouns, so the underlying structures repeated, There's a noun at the end of that and proceeding those obviously is the pronouns there, which are repeated obviously, but it is this poetic parallelism. They makes this line very memorable. So this idea that we shouldn't judge people on the color of their skin, but the contents of their characters when you put things into parallel series as they're called, like that, can train tracks repetition here. It's also more memorable for people. So a lot of people can quote from large parts of the speech, even today, many years later, because it was put in that parallel series. And this is the trick of poetry. This is what is known by poets to make their work more memorable. Songs, popular pop songs are written in parallel series. The whole structure of a song often has repetition, so you can use that in prose, full sentences for great effect. Readers like this poetry, it's pleasing to the ear. It makes sentences well-structured and memorable. 3. Surface vs Under Surface Parallelism: So as with the Martin Luther King speech, I Have a Dream that I mentioned earlier. Some parallelism is so obvious, it's so clear. So on the slide I want to show you what is called some surface parallelism examples kinda like the Martin Luther King speech, the first sentences, I ran and ran and ran away from the monster. So what does this suggest? Well, it suggests the person ran a lot. Now you could just say I ran a lot, I ran far to get away from the monster. But by just having the reader experience The ran, ran, ran, we get that sense that there was a lot of running. Imagine if this second sentence was written. Mozart composed and composed and composed until the music sounded right? Well that says in that repetition of the verbs, Compose, Compose, Compose, and he did a lot of work. It wasn't like he just took ten minutes and came up with this stuff. It took a long time. And then also you can say something out of the fast and furious movies, the Ferrari drifted and drifted on the dirt road. So I was doing a lot of drifting. So those are pretty obvious, but sometimes parallelism is less obvious to the reader. It's more under the surface parallelism where the meanings of the words change, but the parts of speech that are repeated stay the same. So consider these Sander eight and burped at dinner. Eight and burped ir verbs, but there are different verbs. Priya walked and ran the marathon. The theory circulated and then settled in the discourse of the academic field. So in the second one, we have walked and ran. Those are both verbs with their different verbs in terms of their meaning. And then the second one circulated and settled have different meanings, but they are verbs. So in each case, no surface verb meanings repeat, but the structure stays the same actually in those three sentences. Now sometimes parallelism goes wrong and so you have a thing called faulty parallelism, and that's one of those grammar book points. So look at the first sentence on this slide. John was screaming, ran and disappeared. What is the faulty parallelism here? Well, here ran and disappeared are in the same tense, past tense, and was, screaming needs to be in this sentence streamed to be parallel with those other two verbs. The second sentence is the topic of creationism and science was quite heated in the past few years. People on both sides of the debate are debating their sides. And furthermore argued vehemently in a way that does not help come to some conclusion. What is the faulty parallelism here? Well, our debating is in present tense and then argued is in past tense, so we don't have those train tracks of equal grammatical parts of speech. Finally, cat Thomson presents and explain the legal case. We have two verbs There presents an explained, but one is in present tense, one is impasse, so they need to be changed back to the same tenses here, same forms in these three sentences. 4. Verb Series: Now let's turn to some more examples of parallelism, specifically what are called single element parallel series. And I have five of the series to share with you today. There are many more. I mean, there's an infinite number of possibilities for you in parallelism. I am just giving you a small set to get you started to get you a sense of what parallelism is. Some of this is very simple. You can make it as complex as you want as you can imagine. So the first type of parallel series, probably the best 11 you can use all the time. It isn't going to get worn out is the verb series. So earlier I've mentioned in some other lectures that the verb is so, so important to the sentence. We want to get as many verbs as possible into our sentences because they have so much meaning and they provide images, they provide movement to our writing that why not pack in as many as possible to our sentences? So we want a very high ratio of verbs to other words in our sentences. So as I said earlier in this set of lectures, data parallel series is simply at minimum to repeated grammatical elements. So we can say something like this in Verbs series. I laughed and cried at the same time, so laughed and cried 12. How about this example? Lyricists studied, studied, and studied for that calculus exam, which gives off extra meaning. So of course we are, we have that repetition of the three verbs, but also we know she studied a lot and you can really extend these parallel series into very long sentences. So it's not just about simple sentences. You can, you can add on and add on and add on and create longer sentences. For example, you can say lyricists studied, studied, and studied for the calculus exam. And when the professor lay the exam on the desk in front of her, she trembled, shriek, and bolted out of a lecture hall into the washroom where she whispered and shook for 35 minutes. One sentence but has a lot of good parallel series, verb series here that make it easy to follow. For example, we already have the studied, studied, studied, and then zoom along in the sentence to trembled, shriek, and bolted. So three verbs there. And then we empowered in shook to interesting verbs as well. And that's the power of parallelism, is to allow you to make these long sentences and still make sense. This is not a run-on sentence. Some other examples of verb series, I write edit revise and then write edit revise again. Or how about this one? John eight, drink, drank more, drink too much. And he talked, talked more and said more than he ever should have said. Now you can create a surprise in these series. So if the final element, the final verb, changes our impression of the sentence, it plays with the words. So for example, you could say, in the summer we swam, hiked, laughed and kissed in the winter, we studied, worked, complained, and fought. So that's verb series. Get these verbs into your writing as much as possible. You can't overdo it. 5. Noun Series: The next single element parallel series is the noun series. So I believe that nouns are the second best word in the sentence. Second two, verbs and great noun, strong nouns provide a lot of images to people. Well, we can also just put them in a list. We can put them in a series for effect. So we can say something like julia Turn mark called Deep and Kwanza presented the sales pitch. So that puts the nouns, and these are names in the start or the Dewar part of the sentence. So julia Turn mark called deepen Kwanza hair all presenting the sales pitch. We didn't have to say Julia presented the sales pitch, turn, presented the sales pitch, mark presented the sales pitch on and on and on. We can all combine those things. Now also you can reverse this and put the series, the noun series at the end of the sentence. So we can say, I saw on his desk a Dictionary and Thesaurus pen, a disk computer, a cup, an Oreo, and an aspirin. And they're like the verb series that I've talked about in an earlier lecture. We have a little bit of a surprise there at the end, the aspirin. So it says that maybe he's got a headache when he's sitting at that desk. So changed that final element for a surprising shift. And here's some more shifts at the end of the sentence in the noun series, the town had a church, a bank, a school, and just beyond the town line, a morgue. So we can imagine we get that sense that this story is probably going to deal with what happens at that morgue. In an academic example, we could say Peterson's quantitative analysis project showed increases, decreases, and mistakes. So his study is problematic and that's told by that final noun that shifts our perspective. And here's one that might have come out of something like a Stephen King story. After the accident, I saw scattered on the highway a seat, a tire, a suitcase, UDL, and to head. And if you notice in these examples, there are no adjectives in front of those nouns is just noun, noun, noun, so on, with a shift at the end of each of those for a very strong effect, almost like the punchline of a joke. 6. Adjective Series: You can also put adjectives, so those are the words that modify nouns into series. One big problem with writing, particularly in beginning writers of fiction, is to pepper adjectives all over their writing. So every noun has an adjective, it can become heavier, can become a problem. What you need to do is inject adjectives using series. So using a parallel series, inject those into sentences at the right moment. So for example, you could say gray, motionless, doll clouds hung over the picnic. So we have 123 adjectives, then we get the noun and then we move on with the sense you can say, detailed, coherent, well argued writing makes Dr. kill Gore's book a pleasure to read. Again, we've loaded up those adjectives in a series of the beginning. Now this series comes after the verb. The next one, she was attractive, smart, well-focused, soft-spoken, and dishonest. There's that shift that I've talked about in an earlier lecture. And remember that in the English language, we can either put adjectives before the noun or we can put adjectives after was. And here we've got 12345 adjectives, the first four obviously being fine. I mean, there's nothing wrong with describing someone as attractive, smart, well-focused, and soft spoken. But that last one is the problem for this person's character. And that provides that nice little shift at the end of the sentence. Now we didn't have to spend a whole paragraph describing her character here we can load up the adjectives, get them all out of the way, and then we can move on with describing the story here or whatever you wanna do after that sentence. So in these three, they provide great details. These adjectives series a spice up the nouns and pronouns when needed. But just like when you take a vodka shot at the bar and having a party, you're drinking, a good writer knows when to stop. You don't want to use these series over and over and over again throughout all your writing. Be careful with them. It's not only the verb series, Verbs series you can use all the time as much as you want. Here you've gotta be judicious. Be careful of when you use these uses occasionally. 7. Adverb Series: Just like adjectives, we can get into problems with another part of speech and other word, and that is the adverb. So there's always some really bad reading out there that peppers adverbs all over the sentences. You gotta be careful you can overdo adverbs. These are words that end in LY. They modify a verb obviously, and they can shift around sentences. They can be located in a lot of different spots, not necessarily for the verb. It can be after, it can be later on in the sentence. So what are some examples of adverbs series? So these are when you want to inject some adverbs for a certain purpose, a very specific purpose, and then get out and get on and move on. You're not going to be peppering all of your sentences with adverbs. Well, you could say something like this piece that seems like it comes from a National Geographic Magazine. Slowly, quietly, assuredly, the lioness circles closer and closer to a beautiful, peaceful, complacent zebra who drinks his last drink at the watering hole. So here we load up at the beginning those adverb slowly, quietly, assuredly, notice also that not all adverbs hafta eval. Why? So closer and closer modifies circles, the verb circles. So that is also an adverb even though it doesn't have LY. And also you'll notice I put an adjective series here, beautiful, peaceful, complacent, modifying zebra. So there's a lot going on in that sentence and the verbs are strong, the adverbs are interesting. Also, the adjective series helps out there too. That's a lot of detail in great detail in one sentence, we can say something like I loved him Holy unreservedly, blindly and stupidly again, a surprise with stupidly another one in the presentation, Dr. Gregerson analyze the argument completely and tirelessly. So that really shows that this academic, the scholar a, spending a lot of time analyzing that argument and notice those two adverbs come right at the end of the sentence. If the go back a bit to find the verb they modify and that is analyzed. These server purpose, they give additional details and they're useful in the sense we don't pepper are sentences with adverbs. We give them in a quick shot and then we move on from this another example, his voice grew quickly and wildly. So in this example, we get at a detail if we had just said his voice grew, we really don't know how he does that and quickly in wildly is useful, gives extra characterization of the man's voice. And make sure you test your usage of adverbs if you can knock them off and the meaning is fine, then why would you use them? These are only used in certain moments to add a little bit of detail to those verbs. 8. Preposition Series: The final parallel series that I want to give you as a spark, a way of starting out on this idea is the preposition series. So what is a preposition? Well, it's simply small linking words. For example, words like on, under, beside, during, and there's so many of these, and these express relationships between other words, between subjects and objects according to space, logic, and time, prepositions don't get much attention in the grammar books. So just little words. We, we often don't even think about them very much, and they draw the most attention often when they end a sentence. So some grammarians believe these should not end descends with, for example, the word to, which is a preposition. But we think they deserve a little bit more attention and they can be used to great effect. Before I get into what those series are, there are so many prepositions and I just want to show you some of these above, beside, out within, below, beneath, over, during, under, after two into, on-off with, at, without. So you can find more in the dictionary. Now if we're going to use these singularly, so not in a series, we might say something like the boy sits on the bike or the boy sits beside the bike. The boy looks at the bike. But if we want to put something into series, and that's the point of these lectures is to create that poetry of using these prepositions. We can say something like In our country government by and for the people has become government over, around and through the people. Now by oven for the people who was an old saying from centuries ago discussing political philosophy. And this has been turned around a bit. They've, they've done another parallel series of companion to buy of four, which is 123 prepositions. And that is over, around and through 1-2-3 again. And what does that say about this current government? Well, it's saying that they are corrupt. We could also say We looked in around and under the shed for that cat. So it suggests the spatial relationship between we and that cat and that shed. And then he's in, around and under, those are the prepositions. And then finally, you might recognize this example from a song by Irish rock band U2. And that is, I can't live with or without you. It seems like a contradiction. One of the most famous lines and the song is called with or without you, one of the most famous songs by U2, but I can't live with or without you with and without are prepositions. And it creates again that poetry 1212. So when you need to describe complex time-space or logical relationships, the preposition series is a useful tool to do it elegantly. Don't overdo it though, you only use this once in a while. 9. Multiple Element Series: Now let's turn to some more complex parallel series. And what we can do is actually create multiple elements in these series were repeating multiple elements. And I'm going to take some of the individual parts of speech that I used previously and combine them so we could, for example, have an adjective, noun series. So here's a simple noun series. First, mark wore a hat, a jacket, a vest, and it's high, it's fine, but it really doesn't show his character. What if we make this an adjective, noun series? So we're gonna go 121212. And I think this shows a lot more character about this guy, Mark. So mark wore a purple hat, a green jacket, a red vest, and a blue tie. Wow, this guy is a real character to dress like that. He's not a conservative dresser as maybe the noun series shows, he is someone that is more wild in his clothing with that adjective noun series. Another multiple elements series is subject verb series. So that's a doer of the action and a verb. So this allows us to be a little bit more complex. You can say something like in Bach's thins study of the town's history, he showed that the peasants protested, landowners complained, soldiers marched, and peasants died. So what are the subject verb series here where we have peasants protested? That's the doer of the action. And the action that we have. Landowners complained, again, subject verb or do or an action. Soldiers marched again, one to two or an action, and then peasants died comes full circle by the end of the sentence. A lot of action. There are a lot of people doing things and it's all interconnected. Now somebody would have written this in another way, let's say a non parallel way like this. In Baxton study of the town's history, he showed that the peasants protested, which cause the landowners to complain. And then the soldiers marched and shot the peasants dead. Not as poetic This sentence, not as interesting as the first, not as straightforward as the original example. Another classic example of the subject verb series is I came, I saw, I conquered. So this is the classic Julius Caesar Latin line, Veni vidi Vici converted to English. That's a great, powerful subject verb series that emphasizes the eye, the doer of that action. It wouldn't mean as much if you made it into a verb series. I came, saw and conquered doesn't have the same effect. I don't think it sounds like you just shrugged it off. I came, saw conquer. No, he says I came, I saw I conquered. It's important to repeat the doer of the action. Another type of series is subject verb object series. We're getting a little more complex. For example, you could say Nicole purified the sulfur, Mary heated the acid, Karim weighed the magnesium and John combed his hair. So there we have the doer of the action, the action and, and a receiver, which is the sulfur Mary is a dewar again. And there's us nice verb, heated and receiver of that action, the object which is the acid and so on. Of course, there is a shift in the elements here and that is John. He's in the same grammatical structure, but he is not doing the same type of actions as the others. He's not doing the experiment. He just combing his hair. So that's the neat little surprise there. Now, each unit of this, so where you see those commas, you could have put a period, you could put a period after in those places of the comma, removed the end near the end, and it will be four separate sentences, but we combine them because they are working on the same project. And then finally, another multi elements, multiple elements series is verb preposition object. You're not going to use this that often, once and awhile you're going to use this. So why don't you give it a try. This multi elements series simply repeats a verb, then one of those prepositions, which I talked about in a previous example of the preposition series, and then the object of the receiver of the action. So what does this look like in practice where you can say the cat walked down the road, stopped on the sidewalk, strolled over the yard and stared at the dog. So these were just a few examples of how you can combine grammatical elements to create those multiple or multi element series. You can take any direction you want. Only your creativity will be your limitation. So try this out with other grammatical elements. See what else you can parallel beyond what I've shown here, your readers will enjoy the poetry and also the structure of your sentences. 10. Parallelism Conclusion: So these examples of parallel series represent ways of adding detail quickly and compactly to your writing. So professional writers use parallelism to create a rhythm kind of poetry, but also a solidity of their grammatical structure using parallel series helps writers to avoid the tendency also to sprinkle many individual parts of speech. So for example, adjectives, adverbs are around their writing. Getaway from that, you want to be very targeted with your use of those parts of speech, the adjectives and adverbs. Now some people, some students say to me, well these series seem really simple. This is obvious stuff. Well, that's the, the point of this simplicity of these series should help you to see your sentences structurally. Now, as you try out parallelism, you'll start to map out your sentences more clearly in your head. They'll come out more clearly. You won't fall into that classic trap and problem that a lot of writers have of long confusing constructions that will inevitably tire out your readers. You definitely won't fall into that dreaded run-on sentence that is so common to students writing. Sometimes that run on sentence is also called a comma splice. I see so many comma splices in students writing where they fuse together to different parts of speech, to different elements, different phrases that are not parallel, and it's so confusing on the reader. And you wanna make your writing as straightforward, as structured as possible for the reader to follow along. And parallelism is the key to that. So I would suggest go back to some of your previous reading and see if you are doing these things. If you are possibly using faulty parallelism, falling into run-on sentences and comma splices, that sort of thing. And then a restructure, edit your sentences so that you have that structure in it. In the same way the Martin Luther King had structure in his famous I Have a Dream speech. Most readers won't realize what you're doing, so they won't even notice this stuff, but it's a very powerful effect. They will just enjoy it. They will just think, well, I kinda like this reading and you know the trick, you know the technique now to get them to have that reaction to your writing.