What is parallel structure and why does it matter?

‘Parallel structure’ or ‘parallelism’ refers to keeping the same grammatical structure in your writing when you list items in a series.

Mistakes are very common in this area. They make your writing look and sound clunky and can impede a reader’s understanding. Here’s a simple example:

WRONG
Top Energy is a company that produces and delivers heat and water supplies and also sewage disposal.

RIGHT
Top Energy is a company that produces and delivers heat and water supplies and also disposes of sewage.

In this example “sewage disposal” is a noun phrase while “disposes of sewage” is a verb phrase. The sentence needs a verb phrase here because the other two items in the series – “produces and delivers heat” and “(produces and delivers) water supplies” – are verb phrases. In order to be parallel, the third item on the list must use the same grammatical structure as the other items.

Here’s another example:

WRONG
If the owner of the premises breaches the agreement, the association of premises’ owners may demand from the owner the removal of the breach and restore the property to its original condition.

RIGHT
If the owner of the premises breaches the agreement, the association of premises’ owners may demand from the owner the removal of the breach and the restoration of the property to its original condition.

In this example the first item listed is “the removal of the breach”, which is a noun phrase. The second item listed is “restore the property to its original condition” – a verb phrase. To make the second item parallel, I have turned it into a noun phrase – “the restoration of the property to its original condition”.

This mistake is particularly bad because it changes the meaning of the sentence. I can illustrate this by making bullet points of the listed items. Here’s the correct version:

If the owner of the premises breaches the agreement, the association of premises’ owners may demand from the owner

  • the removal of the breach and
  • the restoration of the property to its original condition.

Note how the two bulleted items are parallel noun phrases.

Now here’s how the incorrect version could be misunderstood (where the two bulleted items are parallel verb phrases):

If the owner of the premises breaches the agreement, the association of premises’ owners may

  • demand from the owner the removal of the breach and
  • restore the property to its original condition.

Instead of the owner having to restore the property to its original condition, the association does it.

Such a misunderstanding can arise because readers expect listed items to be parallel.

The technique of making bullet points of listed items is very useful when trying to understand more complex sentences. Have a look at this example:

Participants in this conference will have an opportunity to learn how to determine employment status, properly structure an employment contract and what are the typical elements of employee compensation and benefits packages offered in Poland and Hungary and the legal issues related to them.

If we make a bullet-pointed list, this is what we get:

 Participants in this conference will have an opportunity to learn how to

  • determine employment status,
  • properly structure an employment contract and
  • what are the typical elements of employee compensation and benefits packages offered in Poland and Hungary and the legal issues related to them.

The third item is not parallel. The first two items are verb phrases which grammatically follow the introductory sentence. The third item is ungrammatical when read together with the introductory sentence. There are various ways to correct this sentence, but, as it is a long sentence, I suggest splitting it into two sentences as follows:

Participants in this conference will learn how to determine employment status and properly structure an employment contract. The conference will also cover the typical elements of employee compensation and benefits packages offered in Poland and Hungary and the related legal issues.

Although bullet-pointed lists are very useful in this context, faulty parallelism can still creep into them. Consider this example:

WRONG
With reference to the Company’s planned share capital decrease, please find attached a power of attorney authorising us to represent the Company’s sole Shareholder at the Company’s Extraordinary Shareholders’ Meeting and vote for and on behalf of the Shareholder on matters related to:

  • decreasing the Company’s share capital,
  • amendment of its Articles of Association,
  • adoption of the unified text, and
  • any other matters on the Agenda of the Extraordinary Shareholders’ Meeting related to the share capital decrease.

RIGHT
With reference to the Company’s planned share capital decrease, please find attached a power of attorney authorising us to represent the Company’s sole Shareholder at the Company’s Extraordinary Shareholders’ Meeting and vote for and on behalf of the Shareholder on matters related to:

  • decreasing the Company’s share capital, OK
  • amending its Articles of Association,
  • adopting the unified text, and
  • any other matters on the Agenda of the Extraordinary Shareholders’ Meeting related to the share capital decrease. OK

The first bullet point “decreasing the Company’s share capital” is a gerund phrase. (A gerund is an –ing form that acts like a noun.) In the above corrected version I have made the second and third bullets into gerund phrases so they are parallel to the first. As gerund phrases behave like noun phrases, the fourth bullet (being a noun phrase) is OK.

It is also possible to make all the bullets noun phrases, as below. Note the addition of the to the second and third bullets, which was missing in the original version:

RIGHT
With reference to the Company’s planned share capital decrease, please find attached a power of attorney authorising us to represent the Company’s sole Shareholder at the Company’s Extraordinary Shareholders’ Meeting and vote for and on behalf of the Shareholder on matters related to:

  • the decrease of the Company’s share capital,
  • the amendment of its Articles of Association,
  • the adoption of the unified text, and
  • any other matters on the Agenda of the Extraordinary Shareholders’ Meeting related to the share capital decrease. OK

Another problem related to parallel structure involves the use of prepositions. Have a look at this example:

WRONG
Employees have the right to subscribe and benefit from a certain percentage of shares.

 RIGHT
Employees have the right to subscribe to and benefit from a certain percentage of shares.

Although you can benefit from something, you cannot subscribe from something. You subscribe to something.

Another example:

WRONG
The Agency intends to engage the Company to provide equipment, and the Company confirms that it is willing to and capable of providing the equipment.

Here, capable of providing is correct, but willing to providing is wrong.

RIGHT
The Agency intends to engage the Company to provide equipment, and the Company confirms that it is willing to provide the equipment and capable of doing so.

The Agency intends to engage the Company to provide equipment, and the Company confirms that it is willing and able to provide the equipment.

In the second correct version, willing to and able to both take the infinitive (provide), so only one preposition (to) is required.

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The difference between “born” and “borne”

Both “born” and “borne” are the past participle (third form) of the verb “bear”.

The verb “bear” basically means “carry”.

“Born” is used ONLY with reference to a birth of a baby or animal.

My son was born on Christmas Day.
He is a born leader. (This means he was born to be a leader.)
Many Cuban-born Americans live in Miami.

“Borne” is used in all other instances.

This issue must be borne in mind when considering future strategy.
He has borne the guilt of that financial loss for all these years.
Lyme Disease is a tick-borne bacterial infection.

Note that both “born” and “borne” can be used as adjectives as well as verbs.

In born leader, “born” is an adjective.
In Cuban-born Americans, “Cuban-born” is a compound adjective.
In tick-borne bacterial infection, “tick-borne” is a compound adjective.

Although I say that “born” is used only with reference to a birth, “borne” can also be used with reference to a birth if the reference is in the active voice.

In the sentence My son was born on Christmas Day, “was born” is the passive voice. This is the most common usage.

Other examples of this usage:

When were you born?
I was born in 1985.
My father was born before World War Two.
The twins were born three hours apart.

However, if we use the active voice we must use “borne”. Note that this usage is rather old fashioned.

Examples:

She has borne a son. (This means she has given birth to a son.)
Elizabeth had borne six children by the time she was 25.

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“Decide to”, “decide on” and “make a decision”

“Decide to” is followed by the infinitive.
“Decide on” is followed by a verb in the –ing form or a noun / noun phrase.

You decide to do something.
But you decide on doing something, or you decide on something.

“Decide to” is stronger and more definite than “decide on”.
“Decide to” states that a decision has been made and states what that decision was.
“Decide on” may only state that a decision has been made. What that decision was may be implied, but it may not always be clear.

Consider the following examples:

Decide to plus infinitive
“We have decided to purchase our company’s competitor in Florida.”
“Great! When’s the transaction going to be closed?”

Decide on plus –ing
“We have decided on purchasing our company’s competitor in Florida.”
“Yeah? So you’re actually going to buy it?”

Decide on plus noun phrase
“We have decided on the purchase of our company’s competitor in Florida.”
“So what have you decided?”

These examples show the gradation of meaning of the three different structures. With “decide to”, the meaning is clear. “Decide on plus –ing” is similar, but may be ambiguous in certain circumstances. “Decide on plus noun / noun phrase” is not clear.

If you make a decision on something, we only know for certain that a decision has been made. It may not be clear whether the decision was positive or negative.

Make a decision on plus noun phrase
“We have made a decision on the purchase of our company’s competitor in Florida.”
“So what have you decided?”

Using the –ing form does not make the sentence much clearer.

Make a decision on plus –ing
“We have made a decision on purchasing our company’s competitor in Florida.”
“That sounds positive, but what have you decided?”

However, if you use “to” plus infinitive instead of “on”, the meaning is clear.

Make a decision to
“We have made a decision to purchase our company’s competitor in Florida.”
“Great! When’s the transaction going to be closed?”

More examples:

“We have made a decision to sell the company.”
“Really? When are you going to tell the employees?”

“We have made a decision on the sale of the company.”
“So, what did you decide?”

“During the meeting we decided to take on more staff.”
“Great – but is the office big enough?”

“During the meeting a decision on taking on more staff was made.”
“So what was the decision?”

Note on “make a decision”: Many style guides discourage writers from using this phrase. The noun “decision” is a nominalisation of the verb “decide”. It is shorter and – as you can see – often clearer, to simply use the verb.

“Decide on” is also a phrasal verb. It means “to choose something or someone after careful thought”. It is usually followed by a noun / noun phrase. In the examples below we know that a decision was made and also what that decision was.

After several months of looking for premises we’ve finally decided on a warehouse on the motorway outside Manchester.

It was very difficult to choose between Mark and Julia for the position of Head of HR, but we finally decided on Julia.

After consulting an interior designer, we decided on wood panelling for the meeting room.

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“To lie” and “to lay”

The verb “to lie” can mean two things:

  1. to deliberately tell untruths – e.g. Don’t lie to me!
  2. to be in a horizontal recumbent position – e.g. Lie down and relax.

Confusion arises – also among many native speakers of English – about the second and third forms of these verbs as well as the -ing form, which is often confused with the verb “to lay”.

Here are some examples based on the things a woman might say to an unfaithful husband.

to deliberately tell untruths

1st form – You lie!
2nd form – You lied to me.
3rd form – You have lied to me and I can no longer trust you.
-ing form – You were lying to me then and you are lying to me now!

to be in a horizontal recumbent position

1st form – How can you lie there peacefully as if nothing has happened?
2nd form – I lay awake all last night unable to sleep.
3rd form – You have lain with another woman!
-ing form – How can you carry on lying there? Say something!

Note that the 2nd and 3rd forms of the verb are the forms that differ.

As the 2nd form of this meaning of “lie” is “lay”, it is sometimes confused with the verb “to lay”, which has a different but related meaning.

“to lay” means to put something down in a horizontal position.

Here’s the next instalment of the dramatic story of marital infidelity.

1st form – I raised the gun and shouted, “Lay down the knife!”
2nd form – He laid the knife on the table and put up his hands.
-ing form – As he was laying down the knife, I noticed there were tears in his eyes.
3rd form – Having laid aside our differences, we made a deal. I would get the house and the car. He would keep his record collection.

It is a common mistake to confuse “lying” and “laying”:

WRONG
I was laying in bed all night unable to sleep.
The knife was laying on the table. 

RIGHT
I was lying in bed all night unable to sleep.
The knife was lying on the table.

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How to use the phrase “a number of…”

WRONG
There is a number of possible solutions that we can discuss.

RIGHT
There are a number of possible solutions that we can discuss.

WRONG
A number of protesters was seen outside the premises.

RIGHT
A number of protesters were seen outside the premises.

The phrase “a number of” is always followed by a plural verb, NOT a singular verb.

This is rather exceptional because “a number” is singular while the verb it goes with is in the plural. We do this because “a number of” means “several”, so refers to the plural. We use the plural verb to match the plural meaning of the phrase, NOT its singular grammar.

 

 

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Overuse of linking phrases and discourse markers

There seems to be a tendency among non-native speakers of English to use more linking phrases in their writing than is necessary.

There are numerous examples of such phrases. Many of them use the passive voice and can be very cumbersome. Here are some:

Please note that…
At this point, it should be mentioned that…
It should be pointed out that…
At the same time it should be noted that…
Furthermore, it is also worth mentioning that…
Nonetheless, it must also be stated that…
Special attention should be paid to the fact that…
Therefore, as an introductory note it is worth pointing out that…
The analysis outlined above demonstrates that…
In addition it has recently been identified that…

Most of the time, such phrases can be deleted with no loss of meaning. I also regularly delete shorter phrases like the ones listed below (known as “discourse markers”):

In addition…
Moreover…
Furthermore…
Nonetheless…
Nevertheless
Therefore…
As a consequence…

Here’s an example of the usage of such phrases in context. It is about ships navigating in an area of the Black Sea.

Besides, there were Another 34 ships passing passed through the Strait of Gibraltar and proceeding proceeded towards the Black Sea.
Additionally and bearing in mind that As vessels navigating the area may have entered the Mediterranean through the Suez Canal as well as through the Strait of Gibraltar, the transit through Suez towards the Black Sea was also analysed.
As a result, it was identified that 107 vessels that had passed through the Suez Canal reached the area of interest within the reference period.

As you can see, the phrases can be deleted with no loss of meaning, and the text becomes significantly shorter and clearer.

If the connection with the previous sentence or paragraph is obvious (which it should be if your writing follows a logical sequence), it is probably not necessary to use linking phrases.

If you want to write well in English, such phrases should be used sparingly, if at all.

 

 

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The difference between “in possession of” and “in the possession of”

Somebody is in possession of something.

Something is in the possession of somebody.

So for example:

The passenger was in possession of a very large dog.

A very large dog was in the possession of the passenger.

Mistakes can sound very silly to native English speakers. If you write

A very large dog was in possession of the passenger

it means the dog possessed the passenger.

The easiest way to avoid such mistakes is to avoid using these phrases at all. A sentence like

We are in possession of all the required documentation

can simply be rewritten as

We have all the required documentation.

And this is what I suggest you do.

 

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How to use “worth”

WRONG
It might not work, but I think that in our current circumstances it is worth to try.

Using the structure “worth to do something” is a very common mistake. It is ALWAYS WRONG.

RIGHT
It might not work, but I think that in our current circumstances it is worth trying.

Other examples:

WRONG
In order to strengthen our position in the case, it is worth to consider including some of the claims presented in the memorandum of 25 August.

RIGHT
In order to strengthen our position in the case, it is worth considering including some of the claims presented in the memorandum of 25 August.

WRONG
As we do not know how the situation might change, it is worth to anticipate several possible scenarios.

RIGHT
As we do not know how the situation might change, it is worth anticipating several possible scenarios.

 

In the above examples, “worth” is a preposition. It is followed by the –ing form of a verb (which is technically a gerund – an –ing form which behaves grammatically like a noun). “Worth” can also be followed by a noun/noun phrase:

Their proposal is simply not worth consideration.

We took my grandmother’s wedding ring to the jewellers and they said it’s worth $4000.

Mazuria is a beautiful place. If you go to Poland, it’s well worth a visit.

My assistant is worth her weight in gold. When she goes on maternity leave, I don’t know how I’ll replace her.

 

“Worth” can also be a noun meaning “value”.

According to our estimates, there is still several million dollars-worth of oil left in the ground.

Her net worth is over $100 million.

The shares have a worth of EUR 10,000.

 

The difference between “worth” and “worthy”

I have also seen similar mistakes like this:

WRONG
It might not work, but I think that in our current circumstances it is worthy to try.

RIGHT
It might not work, but I think that in our current circumstances it is worth trying.

Although the words “worth” and “worthy” are closely connected, they are used differently. For example, the following sentences mean the same thing, but as you can see, the grammar following the words “worth” and worthy” is different:

That idea is simply not worth discussing.

That idea is simply not worthy of discussion.

“Worthy” is an adjective that means “having value”. Common collocations are “a worthy cause”, “a worthy successor”, “worthy of acclaim”, “worthy of praise”.

 

 

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Whether (or not)

WRONG
We must decide by the end of the month whether or not we’re going to do it.

This is an example of a very common mistake. In this sentence “or not” is unnecessary.

RIGHT
We must decide by the end of the month whether we’re going to do it.

Here are some other examples. In each case just “whether” is enough:

He asked me whether or not I was interested in a posting to Hong Kong.
It depends on whether or not we find a buyer in Moscow.
Whether or not my phone will work depends on me finding a charger.

Sometimes, however, “whether or not” is correct. Have a look at this sentence:

He said he can finish the project this weekend whether or not the server is down. His family is away and he can work at home.

Here “whether or not” has the same meaning as “regardless of whether”.

More examples:

The party will be outside whether or not it rains. We’ve put an awning up over the terrace.
Overall profits are up so much that apparently we’ll be getting a bonus this year whether or not we’ve met our individual targets.

 

 

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Pairing adverbs and adjectives

Have a look at this sentence:

I have noticed that paragraphs 81 and 82 are virtually similar to paragraphs 5 and 6.

Virtually similar” is incorrect because “virtually” is a non-grading adverb and “similar” is a gradable adjective.

Very similar” or “virtually identical” are correct.

Think about what “similar” means. Things that are similar to each other have attributes in common. Some similar things may have almost all of their attributes in common; some similar things may have only a few attributes in common. So there are degrees of similarity. “Similar” is a gradable adjective.

“Identical”, on the other hand, is a non-gradable adjective. Something is identical to something else, or it is not.

“Virtually” is a non-grading adverb and can only be used with non-gradable adjectives. Saying “virtually similar” is the same as saying “almost similar” – which is absurd. Instead you should say, for example, “very similar”, “quite similar” or “rather similar”. “Very”, “quite” and “rather” are grading adverbs.

Examples of grading adverbs Examples of gradable adjectives
extremely, hugely, immensely, intensely, quite, rather, reasonably, slightly, tremendously, very big, busy, common, deep, fast, high, important, popular, rich, strong, young

 

Examples of non-grading adverbs Examples of non-gradable adjectives
almost, absolutely, completely, entirely, exclusively, fully, mainly, nearly, perfectly, primarily, simply, totally, utterly, virtually awful, essential, excellent, huge, identical, impossible, perfect, terrible, unique, unknown, whole, wonderful

 

Adjectives that classify a thing, such as annual, digital, domestic, environmental, general, maximum, minimum, northern, underlying, etc. are also non-gradable. A thing is either annual, digital, domestic etc., or it is not.

The adverbs fairly, really and pretty can generally be used with both gradable and non-gradable adjectives.

Some adjectives can be both gradable and non-gradable, depending on their meaning.

Gradable meaning Non-gradable meaning (including classifying adjectives)
It is very common for employers to offer overtime pay.

My old boss was very critical of my work.

My computer is very old.

My cat is very particular about his food.

The new graphic designer has some very original ideas.

They are very private people. We seldom see them out of their house.

They had a very public argument on the train – everyone could hear.

We have a lot of common interests.

This hearing is absolutely critical for the case.

My old boss was very critical of my work.

How we deal with this issue depends on the particular activity.

Please send me the original version of the document.

It has been a private company ever since it was established 100 years ago.

It became a public company in 2015.

Another important question to consider when pairing adverbs with adjectives is – do they collocate? Collocations are combinations of words that commonly occur together. So, although it may be grammatically correct to say e.g. “hugely deep” (as we’re pairing a grading adverb with a gradable adjective), native speakers do not usually use this word combination. Instead we might say “extremely deep” or “tremendously deep”.

There are innumerable collocations, and it would be impossible to learn them all, except through continued exposure to native-speaker language.

A final point to make is that there are numerous exceptions to these rules (as always!). If you are in doubt about a particular adverb-adjective pairing, try a Google search. If the word pair gets a significant number of hits, it is probably OK; if not – try another pairing. For example, “hugely deep” only gets 11,100 hits, while “extremely deep” gets over a million.

 

 

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