Parallel structure is a grammar rule that is often referenced yet often misunderstood. After reading this article, you’ll comprehend parallel structure and be able to correctly answer ACT English questions that test your knowledge of parallel structure.
Because you will most likely see parallel structure questions on the ACT, let’s learn this rule and raise your ACT English score.
- Explain parallel structure.
- Detail the types of parallel structure questions on the ACT English section.
- Offer strategies to correctly answer parallel structure questions.
- Provide additional practice questions to test you on what you've learned.
What Is Parallel Structure?
Parallel structure means using the same pattern of words for two or more words or ideas in a sentence. Using parallel structure shows that the words or ideas have the same level of importance and makes the sentence easier to understand.
The basic parallel structure rule is that the things in a list should be in the same grammatical form. If you're listing three things, the construction of that list should be noun, noun, noun, or verb, verb, verb, or gerund, gerund, gerund, etc. Any inconsistency within the list is an error in parallel structure.
Here's an example of a sentence with an error in parallel structure:
LeBron James often dunks, steals, and blocking the basketball.
The sentence is listing three things that LeBron James does with the basketball. The first two things are verbs. The last thing, "blocking," is in the gerund form. A gerund is a verb that acts like a noun and ends in "ing." All three things should be in the same grammatical form.
To correct the error in parallel structure, the last item in the list should be in the verb form, too. Here's what the sentence looks life after it's corrected:
LeBron James often dunks, steals, and blocks the basketball.
Now all the items on the list match. Excellent! So how does the ACT English section test your knowledge of parallel structure?
Parallel Structure on the ACT
There are two primary types of parallel structure questions that appear in ACT English.
Parallelism Type #1: Lists
The example from above was a parallel structure list sentence. Generally, in list questions, three things are listed and you have to verify that all the items in the list are in the same grammatical form. This is another "list" sentence that contains a parallel structure error:
Martin Luther King is admired for his courage, his dedication, and being intelligent.
Can you recognize the parallel structure error? The first two items are nouns, traits that people admire in MLK. In the last item, "being intelligent," the word "being" is a gerund and "intelligent" is an adjective that describes MLK. We want all three items in the list to have the same construction. After fixing the parallel structure error, this is our sentence:
Martin Luther King is admired for his courage, his dedication, and his intelligence.
All of the list items are in the same form. The sentence reads better and the structure is parallel. Let's go over some tips for how to figure out parallel structure list questions on the ACT.
ACT English Strategy
To correctly answer parallel structure list questions, first identify that there is a list of items. Usually the list will look like this: x, y, and z. Make sure that the commas are separating items in a list and are not just separating clauses. Once you have identified the list, determine whether the items in the list are as consistent with the other items in the list as possible. How do we do that?
Break down each item in the list by identifying the parts of speech of the words and make sure that all the items match. We want each item to be in the same grammatical form. After breaking down the list items, there should be no inconsistencies. Once we fixed our previous example sentence, the items in the list included "courage" (noun), "dedication" (noun), and "intelligence" (noun).
While the list questions are relatively basic, there's a second type of parallel structure question that can be a bit more challenging.
Parallelism Type #2: Phrases
Parallel structure phrase questions are slightly more complicated than list questions, but they follow the same principle. The parallel structure rule regarding phrases is that the construction of a phrase on one side of a conjunction must match the construction of the phrase on the other side of the conjunction as closely as possible.
Definition of a Conjunction
Conjunctions are words that connect phrases or clauses. Examples of common conjunctions include and, or, but, and so. Some of you may be familiar with the acronym FANBOYS. It stands for For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, So. Those are all conjunctions.
Additionally, there are correlative conjunctions, also known as word pairs. Literally, these words come in pairs. The items correlative conjunctions compare follow each half of the word pair. Examples of word pairs include either...or, not only...but also, as...as, and both...and.
Now that we know the rule and the definition of a conjunction, we can learn how this rule should be applied. This is a sentence with a parallel structure error:
The ACT English section challenges students and frustration is found in them.
There are two items in the sentence: the two things that the ACT English section does. The two items are connected by the conjunction "and."
Let's break down each item by the parts of speech of the words in each item. The first item, "challenges students," is VERB + NOUN . The second item that follows the conjunction is "frustration is found in them." That phrase's construction is NOUN + VERB + ADJECTIVE + PREPOSITION + PRONOUN. Even if you struggle identifying the parts of speech of certain words, you should be able to immediately recognize that the phrases are not consistent and the sentence has a parallel structure error.
So how do we correct the sentence? We change the wording in the phrase following "and" to match the VERB + NOUN construction of the first phrase. This is the corrected version of the sentence:
The ACT English section challenges students and frustrates them.
The corrected sentence should appear more consistent and read better to you. Now the phrases have the same construction and there's no longer a parallel structure error. Also, it's perfectly acceptable to use a pronoun in the place of a noun as long as the pronoun has a clear antecedent.
In case there's any lingering confusion, let's go over another example:
Kanye West displays both reprehensible behavior at awards shows and on late night talk shows behaving bizarrely.
The two items in the sentence are two things that Kanye West displays. Those things are connected by the word pair "both..and." Again, let's break down the parts of speech of the words in those things. Phrase #1 is "reprehensible behavior at awards shows," and "reprehensible"=ADJECTIVE, "behavior"=NOUN, and "at awards shows"=PREPOSITIONAL PHRASE. The basic construction of phrase #1 is ADJECTIVE + NOUN + PREPOSITIONAL PHRASE.
Phrase #2 is "on late night talk shows behaving bizarrely." What is the construction of phrase #2? Well, "on late night talk shows"=PREPOSITIONAL PHRASE, "behaving"=GERUND, and "bizarrely"=ADVERB. The construction of phrase #2 is PREPOSITIONAL PHRASE + GERUND + ADVERB. We want the constructions of the phrases to match as closely as possible. Think about how you could change the sentence to fix the parallel structure error. Here's the corrected version of the sentence:
Kanye West displays both reprehensible behavior at awards shows and bizarre behavior on late night talk shows.
I changed phrase #2 to match the construction of phrase #1. Both phrases are now in the form of ADJECTIVE + NOUN + PREPOSITIONAL PHRASE. Check it out: "bizarre"=ADJECTIVE, "behavior"=NOUN, and "on late night talk shows"=PREPOSITIONAL PHRASE. Success! The constructions of the phrases match and the sentence is easier to understand.
ACT English Strategy
If you see a conjunction connecting or comparing two items, identify the items. Then, break down the words in each item by their parts of speech and determine each phrase's construction.
Make sure that the phrases are parallel. The construction of the phrases should match as closely as possible. Also, a preposition used on one side of a conjunction or word pair must appear on the other side. Look at this example with a parallel structure error:
The mixed martial artist was complimented not only for his tenacity but also in his technique.
In the above sentences, the prepositions "for" and "in" correspond with "complimented." The sentence is saying that the mixed martial artist was "complimented for" this and "complimented in" that. Hopefully, your knowledge of idioms would tell you that it's incorrect to use the expression "complimented in." Even if you weren't aware of the idiom error, to keep the sentence consistent and follow parallel structure rules, use the same preposition before and after "but also." This is how the sentence should look:
The mixed martial artist was complimented not only for his tenacity but also for his technique.
Let's apply these strategies and our knowledge of parallel structure to actual examples from the ACT English section.
Actual ACT Examples
Look at the following question from a real ACT and determine if there is an error in parallel structure.
As a young woman, she wrote of pining for a valentine and of visiting the Chinese museum in Boston.
F. NO CHANGE
G. visiting to
H. of her visiting to
J. of her visiting at
Explanation: There is nothing grammatically incorrect within the phrase "of visiting." Let's look at the phrase's function within the sentence. It follows the conjunction "and," and it's one of two things that she wrote about. For the sentence to be parallel in structure, the phrases before and after the conjunction should have as close to the same construction as possible.
Phrase #1 is "of pining." After breaking down the words in the phrase, we can determine that the construction of that phrase is "OF" + GERUND. Phrase #2, "of visiting," also has the construction "OF" + GERUND. The phrases are parallel. The answer is F. If you're wondering why I didn't include "for a valentine" and "the Chinese museum in Boston," those phrases just provide descriptive information about what she pined for and where she visited; they do not alter the basic construction of the sentence.
Here's another parallel structure phrase question from an ACT.
Others, salt-encrusted, "sleep" in ancient caverns, waking after centuries to feed and to be bred.
A. NO CHANGE
B. for breeding
C. to breed
Explanation: There's nothing wrong within the phrase "to be bred," but what's the phrase's function within the sentence? It's one of two listed reasons why the others wake after centuries. The reasons are connected by the conjunction "and." Reason #1 is "to feed." The construction of that phrase is simply an INFINITIVE ("to" + verb). Reason #2's construction is INFINITIVE + PAST PARTICIPLE. Even if you were unsure of the part of speech of "bred," you should notice that the construction of reason #2 is inconsistent with that of reason #1. To make the phrases parallel, reason #2 should be in the infinitive form. The answer is C.
Here are some general tips to help you correctly answer parallel structure questions on the ACT.
General Strategies for Parallel Structure SAT Writing Questions
#1: Any Word or Phrase Underlined Within a List Indicates a Possible Error in Parallel Structure
When you see a list of items, make sure that all those items are in the same grammatical form.
#2: Make Sure Phrases that Appear Before and After Conjunctions are Parallel
The "phrase" parallel structure questions tend to be more difficult. Common conjunctions and correlative conjunctions (word pairs) include and, but, not only...but also, so...that, at once...and, both...and, either...or, as...as
#3: Break Down the Construction of Items Within a List or Phrase
Identify the parts of speech of words within a list or phrases that precede and succeed a conjunction. Make sure the construction of the items matches as closely as possible.
I've created some realistic practice problems to test you on your knowledge of parallel structure.
Apply what you've learned in this article to help answer the following realistic ACT parallel structure questions.
1. More than twice as many people inhabit Nigeria as Ethiopia.
2. Unsurprisingly, the diligent student completed his homework punctually, studied the material thoroughly, and his presentations were delivered well.
3. Greg reached his dream not only of having a family but also of becoming a successful entrepreneur.
4. Before leaving your house on the morning of the ACT, make sure you have pencils, a snack, and remembering a calculator.
5. Because Matt does not get enough sleep, he has difficulty focusing and to stay alert.
Answers: 1. D, 2. C, 3. A, 4. B, 5. C
I commend you for putting in the effort to improve your ACT scores. Your investment should pay off. As you continue to study for the ACT English section, make sure you check out this post on 5 critical concepts to ace ACT English. Also, I highly recommend that you read this article about commas on the ACT.
For those of you wondering whether the SAT or ACT is better for you, review this thorough breakdown of SAT Writing vs. ACT English.
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Justin has extensive experience teaching SAT prep and guiding high school students through the college admissions and selection process. He is firmly committed to improving equity in education and helping students to reach their educational goals. Justin received an athletic scholarship for gymnastics at Stanford University and graduated with a BA in American Studies.