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Friday, 2 September 2011

Stuart's Daily Word Spot: Parallelism


Parallelism: noun – literally and figuratively, the state, character or position of being parallel; a parallel case, passage; Correspondence in sense or construction of successive passages; a passage exemplifying this; the state of keeping to the same direction; in Psychology, the belief in a correlation between mental phenomena and physical events in the brain; in Biology, the development of similar characteristics by two related groups of animals or plants responding to similar environmental pressures; in Anthropology,  similarity between the evolution and achievements of different cultures; in Computing, the execution of operations concurrently by separate parts of a computer, e.g. separate microprocessors, the ability to operate in this way.

However, as a writer, my interest in this rests on a specific application; i.e. its relevance to the use of bullet points:

So frequently passages of information are reduced to bullet points as a way of simplifying the presentation and aiding assimilation. But if the sets of points are not constructed using parallelism, the result is one of confusion rather than clarity.

Take a sentence like: ‘When preparing a MS for conversion to a suitable form for Smashword’s meatgrinder, it is essential that the text is devoid of special characters, lacks extra spaces, utilises a single font, excludes references to competitor’s products, and is formatted in a standard form.

A common error in presenting such a sentence in the form of bullet points would probably result in something like:

When preparing a MS for conversion to a suitable form for Smashword’s meatgrinder, it is essential that the text is:
  • ·         devoid of special characters
  • ·         lacks extra spaces
  • ·         utilises a single font
  • ·         excludes references to competitor’s products
  • ·         is formatted in a standard form.

If you read this with each bullet point separately, you’ll see that only the first line makes grammatical sense.

The alternative version, employing parallelism, would look something like this:

When preparing a MS for conversion to a suitable form for Smashword’s meatgrinder, it is essential that the text:

  • ·         is devoid of special characters
  • ·         lacks extra spaces
  • ·         utilises a single font
  • ·         excludes references to competitor’s products
  • ·         is formatted in a standard form.

Simply missing out the ending ‘is’ from the introductory sentence now means that the rest of the points make sense.

So, the secret to a correct bullet-point list is reading the introductory sentence with each following point in order to see that it makes sense.

Pic: Walls of the old fortress on Spinalonga Island, Crete; a former leper colony, which was the subject of Victoria Hislop's evocative and emotive novel; The Island.
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