The Grammarphobia Blog

Parallel universe

Q: I see this kind of sentence so often I’m starting to wonder if I’m wrong and it’s OK: “He also berated Ravi for attempting to cover-up the crime, including deleting text messages, tweets and trying to influence a witness.” Am I too cranky?

A: No, you’re not too cranky. Parallel structure is a notion that eludes many journalists, including some who work for the BBC website where you spotted that sentence.

We’ve touched on the subject of parallelism in sentence structure in previous postings, including blog items in 2008 and 2011.

What it generally amounts to is making sure that the parts of a sentence are in balance. For example, if a sentence includes a series, then all the items in the series should be grammatically equivalent.

The sentence you spotted on the BBC’s website has a series that isn’t composed of parallel terms. But it has another strike against it: the series is introduced with a word (“including”) that’s too vague.

Here’s the sentence again (the “he” is a judge): “He also berated Ravi for attempting to cover-up the crime, including deleting text messages, tweets and trying to influence a witness.”

That “including” is fuzzy, as it often is when it precedes a list. What includes the series that follows—the berating, the attempting, or the crime itself?

We had to do some reading to get to the facts.

The BBC article was about the so-called “cyberbullying” case in which a Rutgers University student used a webcam to secretly spy on his gay roommate, who later committed suicide.

Among other more serious charges, Dharun Ravi was convicted of tampering with evidence (specifically, deleting text messages and altering a Twitter post) and tampering with a witness.

It turns out that Ravi’s attempts to cover up the crime included that subsequent list of items. So the sentence should have begun “He also berated Ravi for attempting to cover up the crime by …” (No, there’s no hyphen in the verb phrase “to cover up.”)

Then we come to the list itself: “… deleting text messages, tweets and trying to influence a witness.” This series isn’t parallel—that is, the terms in the list aren’t grammatically similar. Besides, it implies, inaccurately, that tweets were deleted.

Armed with the facts, we can complete the sentence, making each term in the series parallel with the first: “He also berated Ravi for attempting to cover up the crime by deleting text messages, altering a Twitter post, and trying to influence a witness.”

Parallel structure isn’t all that difficult to master. As The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.) says, a parallel construction is a “series of like sentence elements” and when “linked elements are not like items, the syntax of the sentence breaks down.”

In one of the examples in the Chicago Manual, a series is unparallel because a verb phrase appears in a list of noun phrases:

WRONG: The candidate is a former country judge, state senator, and served two terms as attorney general. RIGHT: The candidate is a former country judge, state senator, and two-term attorney general.”

In another pair of examples, the Chicago Manual corrects a series that needs parallel prepositions:

WRONG: I looked for my lost keys in the sock drawer, the laundry hamper, the restroom, and under the bed. RIGHT: I looked for my lost keys in the sock drawer, in the laundry hamper, in the restroom, and under the bed.”

We’ll continue with some examples of our own.

The verbs in a series should not be in different tenses, as in “He had eaten dinner, showered, and was in bed by 10. (Make it, “and gone to bed by 10.”)

A list of adjectives shouldn’t include a verb phrase, as in “She’s tall, heavy, blond, and has blue eyes.” (Either make it “and blue-eyed,” or rewrite: “She’s tall and heavy, with blond hair and blue eyes.”)

And a list of phrases shouldn’t be dissimilar, as in “He likes reading, taking long walks, and has a weekend place in the Berkshires.” (Either make the second phrase “enjoys long walks,” or change the last phrase to “and spending weekends at his place in the Berkshires”).

When a sentence feels wrong, there’s always a reason, and sometimes the problem is lack of parallel structure.

Check out our books about the English language