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The Grammar of Coordinating Structures and Parallel Construction

Coordinating structures or parallel construction in English is based on a repetition of grammatical form. A word can coordinate with a word if it is the same grammatical class (noun, verb, adjective, adverb, preposition), a phrase can coordinate with a phrase if the head of the phrase is the same grammatical class (same as brackets above), and a clause can coordinate with a clause.

Why is coordination necessary in English? Because the brain does not work as hard processing information that is the same in content or structure, making the information in parallel constructions easier to understand.

In addition, repeating words within grammatical structures also has the advantage of establishing focus on the repeating element, as in 'she wore blue socks, a blue hat, and a blue dress', which emphasizes the color blue.

Finally, repeating information in standard Subject-Verb-Object (SVO) form can be used to draw attention to another element, as in 'the man who was standing at the street corner, the man who was standing at the bus stop, and the woman who was standing at the cinema door all saw the woman in blue.' The focus is on 'the woman in blue.' The detail that one of the people who witnessed 'the woman in blue' is a woman herself, is nearly lost in the parallel construction.

English is a periphrastic language. 'Peri-' means around, and 'periphrastic' means that multiple words are used instead of a single inflected word. As a result, coordination of some structures is difficult and awkward.

However, once you have arranged your sentence to be parallel, it is easier to see which element does not fit, and reword it so it flows better. You may find you need more specific vocabulary to create a parallel construction.

English learners often use too much periphrastic construction and struggle with parallel construction because they lack specific vocabulary. For example, 'a necessary idea in Smith's theory' could be better stated as 'fundamental to Smith's theory' in the structure 'Fundamental to Smith's theory, yet previously unknown...". The end result is a parallel construction which coordinates 'fundamental' and 'previously unknown'.

How do you determine if a phrase is a noun phrase, a verb phrase, or something else? Remove words until the main meaning is gone, then put the word back in which really matters. For example in the clause 'the man who was at the end of the pier', the head noun is the noun 'man', since it absolutely necessary. In the phrase 'walking to the edge of the dock', the head is the verb 'walking'.

If you are struggling coordinating long clauses, try rewording and coordinating at a simpler level, such as the phrase or word level. Short can sometimes be better than long for holding your reader's attention.

Coordinating conjunctions such as 'for', 'and', 'nor', 'but', 'or', 'yet', 'so' are used between elements in a parallel construction.

Examples of parallel constructions are given below, classified according to the grammatical class of the word (noun, verb, adjective, adverb, preposition), head word of a phrase, and the type of clause.

In some countries, it is standard form to place a comma before a coordinating conjunction. Other countries coordinate three elements with 'and' using only one comma. I have chosen to use two commas for three elements here.

I have also chosen to show three coordinating elements in almost every sentence below. It is not necessary to have three, you may have two, or use four or more.

To join two independent clauses with a coordinating conjunction (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so), use a comma before the coordinating conjunction.

To join two independent clauses with a conjunctive adverb (consequently, however, indeed, moreover, nevertheless, therefore), use a semi-colon before the coordinating adverb.

To join two independent clauses without a coordinating conjunction or a conjunctive adverb, use a semi-colon between the clauses.

Coordination at the Word Level

Noun Coordination

Mary, Jill, and Anita all have red hair.

A ball, bat, and glove are all used in the game of baseball.

Nabil painted the top, bottom, and sides of the bench with red paint.
Notice here it does not matter that the word 'sides' is plural when the words 'top' and 'bottom' are not.

The class list showed students from India, Saudi Arabia, and the Philippines.
Notice here it does not matter that one of the countries takes a determiner 'the' and the other two do not.

Verb Coordination

The school taught students to speak, read, and write English.

Miranda's mother asked her to wash, rinse, and dry the dishes.

Toddlers quickly learn how to stand, walk, and run.

Adjective Coordination

Tod was energetic, athletic, and fit.

The papers on the desk were white, yellow, and pink.

The red, white, and green flag is flapping in the wind.

Adverb Coordination

Joyce applied the eye liner carefully, slowly, and steadily.

Grace was calm before, during, and after the exam.

Preposition Coordination

The woman searched on top of, beneath, and inside the shopping bag for the missing receipt.

The group of children explored inside, behind, and around the museum exhibit.

Coordination at the Phrase Level

Noun Phrase

Anita's polished fingernails, dyed hair, and heavy eye makeup set her apart from the other older ladies.

The young couple decided to bring a picnic hamper, some bottled water, and lots of food.

Kelly is a fascinating storyteller, a widely read author, and a popular speaker.

Verb Phrase

Billy rode his bicycle, played with his friends, and generally enjoyed life.

Sarah spent the winter shovelling snow, chopping firewood, and waiting for spring.

Nancy swam to the rock, climbed above the tide line, and shivered in the wind.

Adjective Phrase

The poster was red in the middle, blue around the border, and black at the bottom.

The young mother was tired nearly every morning, accustomed to taking a daytime nap, and grateful when her husband arrived home at night.

Adverb Phrase

Bob was reckless on skiis, clumsy on a snowboard, and unsteady on skates.

Prepositional Phrase

Mike drove his car around the block, through the intersection, and back into the driveway.

Coordination at the Clause Level

Noun Clause

The customers I target are those who recognize a bargain, who value high quality, and who invest in products that last.

Verb Clause

Late last night the ship hit a submerged object, the captain issued a warning, and the passengers donned life vests.

The school routinely made allowances for students who were ill, and sometimes the administration even forgave students who arrived late.

For a printable worksheet of grammar errors of coordination and parallel construction at the word-level, phrase-level, and clause-level, with a separate answer sheet, go to: Grammar Errors Worksheet - Coordination and Parallel Structures

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