Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Parellelism, Or How will anyone know if you don't tell them

I ran across another one of those articles that tells writers that it's important to construct sentences in parallel. That's good advice--the sentence "The new tasks are more complex, more tightly coupled, and set new priorities" takes longer for the reader to process than "The new tasks are more complex, more tightly coupled, and better prioritized." As similar phrases pile up, we appear to throw a switch in our brain as we prepare to process upcoming phrases. We tend to assume that the future will be much like the past and that the rest of the sentence will be like the part of the sentence we've already seen. If a later phrase violates that assumption then we have to unset the switch and move to a different processing method.

However, there's more that can be done to help the reader.

It's always good to remember that the reader only has access to the words on the page and not, for instance, to the author's intent. You can help the reader throw that switch by pointing out that you're about to begin a repeated structure. For instance, the sentence "Rights can be assigned directly to a user or through a group" has a parallel structure ("to a user" and "through a group"). But, while grammatically similar in structure, the parallelism is hard for the reader to spot.

The easiest way to signal to the reader that a parallel structure is about to begin is to repeat a key word. Repeating the keyword, in this example, "assigned" would tell the reader that you're going to repeat the structure "Rights can be assigned directly to a user or assigned through a group."

Reading or read

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