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Regions may wish, on a selective basis, to arrange attendance of firstline supervisors at the training outlined for incumbent special agents.
Do the regions "wish on a selective basis” or will they “arrange attendance on a selective basis”? Because this modifier will obligingly refer to what precedes as well as to what follows it, we call it a squinting modifier. Because it puts on the reader the burden of interpreting what the writer means, it is ambiguous. Put the modifier close to its referent—at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end—if you want to say exactly what you mean.
Put Parallel Ideas in Parallel Form
Parallelism—that is, putting like thoughts in like form—is a writing principle that helps both the writer and the reader. It helps the writer order his thoughts-get them lined up. And it helps the reader because the similarity of form alerts him to the similarity in content.
The writer who can handle parallel constructions skillfully gives to his writing a style and apparent ease and smoothness that few other writing techniques produce. And using parallelism is easy if you know what to watch for.
The guiding principle
All items that are parallel in thought must be alike in construction.
Blessed are the poor in spirit; for their's is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are the meek; for they shall inherit the earth. One reason many of us can remember these phrases from the Gettysburg Address is that they, too, are parallel: “... government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”
Itemization, which we discussed earlier, is another example of parallelism. Items in similar construction provide the reader with an easy checklist.
So much for the general principle. For the rest of this unit, we concentrate on putting words, phrases, and clauses in parallel construction.
Match like forms of words
Here are some examples of faulty parallelism in words:
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms collects taxes due from the alcohol and tobacco tax industries and is responsible for granting permits for the manufacture of these products, for assuring fair trade practices, and for prevention and detection of criminal violation of the statutes governing these industries.
This sentence had an excellent start toward a good example of parallelism. The thoughts were of the same logical weight: the three areas in which the Bureau has responsibility. The same statement introduced each one: "responsibility for." Notice how the "for” is repeated before each of the three items. This word (called a “tag word”) tells the reader that the item following is another part of the parallel construction. The first two items in the series are parallel: for granting and for assuring are the same grammatical form (gerunds, if you want to be technical): by the time the writer reached the third item, he changed from an ing word to one ending in tion-for prevention and detection. To correct the faulty parallelism, we change the third item to for preventing and detecting to match the words introducing previous items.
Here is another example of unlike words used in a parallel construction:
The second major function of the Branch is the preparation and furnishing of reports from accounting records to serve the needs of management.
To correct this, change “preparation” to “preparing” to match "furnishing."
The writer of this one apparently wanted to get variety into his writing:
Responsibility for the formulation of budget procedures, maintenance of related records, rendering financial information, and
submitting special reports .... If the writer began with formulation, he should have used words ending in TION for the other items. The fact that he ran into trouble trying to make a TION word of “maintain" should have given him a clue that he was going down the wrong path. The easiest way to correct this faulty parallelism is to make all the key words ING words—formulating, maintaining, rendering, and submitting.
Here is an example of trying to balance adjectives and nouns:
The applicant for the position is well qualified, she has poise, and
she is attractive. We can correct this error by turning the noun into an adjective:
The applicant for the position is well qualified, poised, and attractive.
This example shows one of the fringe benefits of parallelism: it makes your writing more concise. You have packed the same meaning into fewer words; you did this by COMPRESSION instead of OMISSION.
Match like groups of words
Take your cue from the first item that starts the parallelism in the sentence. If that item is an infinitive, then you must use infinitives in the following items. If you started with a clause, your reader expects to find clauses in the other items. Begin the parallelism with a participle, and you are committed to participles for the remaining items. Keep your eye on that opening item; otherwise, you may lose track of its form before you finish the sentence. You can be sure, though, that your reader won't forget what you used in the first item.
Here we mix a clause and a phrase:
He gave instructions for her to accept the assignment and that he wanted her to report to him.
We begin with an infinitive and switch to a clause. Use either, so long as you are consistent and use the same form in both places.
Either: ... to accept the assignment and to report to him.
should) report to him.
The expenditures show the date of payment, to whom paid, and
whether they are business expenses or investments in new property. In this sentence the first two items (the date of payment and to whom paid) are phrases, while the third item (whether they are business expenses or investments in new property) is a clause. We can correct the sentence by making all the items phrases or all clauses: Phrases: The expenditures show the date of payment, to whom
paid, and the purpose of the expenditure.
The expenditures show when and to whom payment was made and whether they are business expenses or investments in new property.
Match larger units
When we switch from active to passive voice within a sentence, we distract the reader. He can follow the thought more easily if we hold to the same viewpoint throughout. If we say, “The Committee considered all the proposals and plans of attack were discussed,” we make the reader shift his attention from the committee to the plans. To keep going in a straight line, with no shifts, we revise the sentence to “The Committee considered all the proposals and discussed plans of attack.”
This is another illustration of applying the principles of parallelism. From a mixture of active and passive voices in the same sentence, we have reconstructed a sentence that is shorter, more direct, and more effective. Here is another sentence that switches direction in the middle:
Please appraise the enclosed draft of the proposed Handbook for Procedure Writers and send us your evaluation by May 15, or the draft copy may be returned with marginal notes and
insertions. In a series of actions we want the reader to take, we have changed from the direct “Please do this and this” to the indirect passive “this should be done." We can improve the sentence by making all three forms the same: “Please appraise ... and send ... or return ..."
Signals for similarity
The following groups of words signal to the reader that similar ideas will follow:
both ... and
not only ... but also Put these words introducing parallel ideas NEXT TO THE WORDS to which they refer.
Put the ideas following these words into similar grammatical form.
When we misplace these words, we cloud the meaning. If we say, “The question is not only puzzling to taxpayers but also to many tax accountants,” the reader expects to find following but also a word comparable to "puzzling.” (Possibly “not only puzzling but also perplexing.") If we relocate “not only” so that it follows “puzzling,” we have a parallel construction—“puzzling not only to taxpayers but also to many tax accountants.”
Suppose the location of these introductory words is satisfactory-next to the words they modify. Be sure the expressions following them are in the same form. “The question is puzzling not only to taxpayers but also it troubles tax accountants.” Here a phrase follows not only; the reader expects to find another phrase after but also. Instead he finds a clause (it troubles tax accountants). Use the same grammatical construction after each of these two signals for parallelism.
Link Your Ideas
Suppose your letters show that you have followed all the writing principles covered thus far. Your sentences are reasonably short; they contain both active verbs and real subjects; the words are in their logical homes. What, then, remains to be done?
Look at the little words that tie your sentences and paragraphs together. The connecting words are both the links that tie your thoughts together and the pointing fingers that show the reader where the sentence is going.
The tying words
Many of our letters give the impression that we know only two connectives: and and however. Use these words when they do the job for which they were intended, but don't use them for everything.
There are six short common words that tie thoughts together—the coordinating conjunctions—and, but, yet, for, or, and nor. These words connect thoughts that are similar in structure and equal in thought value.
And—“And” is the most overworked of the connectives. It signals to the reader, “The next thought is in addition to the first; it is equal in weight." In practice, however, it is an all-purpose paste that glues anything to anywhere. Here are some examples of and doing the job for which it was intended:
Please attach this letter to the completed forms and return them
in the enclosed envelope. In this sentence and tells us that the second verb, return, is the same form as the earlier one, attach; the ideas are of the same thought value.