Still more Declaration of Independence
On the occasion of America's national day, the Fourth of July, Geoff
pointed out a dangling modifier in the Declaration of
Independence. In follow-up e-mail, a correspondent notes a
restrictive relative which in
this document -- not a surprise, really, but still gratifying.
And now I supply a striking failure of parallelism, in one of the
senses of parallelism that
appears in the advice manuals.
Close to the end of the
Declaration comes the bold
(1) We must... hold them, as we
hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War,
in Peace Friends.
Yes, yes, this was deliberate. It's an instance o
rhetorical figure in which elements are inverted in the second of two
matched phrases, so as to foreground, and emphasize, these
elements. (It's also an example of ASYNDETIC COORDINATION
lacking an explicit conjunction, but that's not my topic for
today.) Still, it falls foul of Strunk & White's 19th
principle in their Elements of Style
"Express coordinate ideas in parallel form"; in fact, it's a much
bolder violation of this principle than the example that Strunk &
White begin their discussion with:
(2) Formerly, science was taught
by the textbook method,
while now the laboratory method is employed.
Strunk & White continue their exposition on maxim 19 with various
types of questionable coordinations, mostly of the sort we've been
calling "WTF coordination" here at Language Log Plaza (most recently,
in Eric Bakovic's report of a
and in my discussion of two specific cases, one
, the other coordinate
). That is, they lump together rhetorical
parallelism and the requirements of syntax. As it turns out, they
also work with an implicit, unexamined theory of coordination that's
seriously confused. And they cast their advice in very general
terms, without seeming to realize that their rules actually make
predictions about what's acceptable English, many of which they would
surely not welcome.
Strunk & White aren't alone in these respects. As I'll
illustrate briefly from two recent manuals, the advice literature on
parallelism exhibits all three of these problematic features: a fuzzy
notion of parallelism (more generally, a failure to distinguish
grammar, usage, and rhetoric), a seat-of-the-pants syntactic theory,
and wildly overgeneralized prescriptions.
But first, restrictive
Language Log reader Mike Jacovides reminded me, on July 5th, that the
very first sentence of the Declaration of Independence has one:
When in the course of human events, it
becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which
have connected them with another,...
This is scarcely a surprise to scholars of English grammar.
Occurrences of restrictive relative which
are all over the place. Still, it's nice to see one right up
front in the Declaration.
On to parallelism. The Declaration's striking chiasmus, in (1),
has contrasting phrase orders (with the syntactic functions of these
phrases held constant). Strunk & White's example, in (2), is
subtler, involving contrasting syntactic functions for the phrase X methods
-- oblique object in the
first clause, subject in the second (both clauses being passive, and so
in some sense entirely parallel in form); the main verb is also varied (taught
in the first clause, employed
in the second), but that
pretty much comes with the territory.
Let me remind you: (2) (from the 4th edition of The Elements of Style
26) is supposed to be BAD
. Those of you who
thought this was an effective deployment of NPs within the matched
passive clauses are just wrong, according to S&W. (Well, I
thought it was pretty good, and so did my sophomore seminar students
who were assigned S&W in writing classes at Stanford. But
what do WE
know? I'm a linguist, and linguists
are widely believed to be enemies of all that is good, true, and
beautiful about language. And they're just kids.) S&W
want you to rewrite (2) as (3), which strikes me, and my students, as
clunky and flat-footed:
(3) Formerly, science was taught
by the textbook method;
now it is taught by the laboratory method.
S&W explain their maxim 19, "Express coordinate ideas in similar
form", as follows:
that of parallel construction,
requires that expressions similar in content and function be outwardly
similar. The likeness of form enables the reader to recognize
more readily the likeness of content and function...
The unskilled writer often violates this principle,
mistakenly believing in the value of constantly varying the form of
expression. When repeating a statement to emphasize it, the
writer may need to vary its form. Otherwise, the writer should
follow the principle of parallel construction.
At least they leave some room for chiasmus and for lexical variation,
in cases of extreme exigency. Like the Declaration of
Independence, maybe. But (2) won't do.
Note that S&W don't just deprecate (2). They also attribute
motives to the writer, who, they suggest, is guilty of "mistakenly
believing in the value of constantly varying the form of
expression". Now, pointless variation is in fact a sin of
unpracticed writers, but lots of variation has a point, so there's no
justification for viewing all variation with suspicion.
The attribution of motives gets worse. On pp. 26-7, S&W,
quite extraordinarily, tell us:
The [first] version
[(2)] gives the impression that the
writer is undecided or timid, apparently unable or afraid to choose one
form of the expression and hold to it,. The [second] version
() shows that the writer has at least made a choice and abided by it.
My student who wrote his course paper on faulty parallelism, Jerry Zee,
was offended by this bit of psychoanalyzing. So was I when he
drew my attention to it. I mean, S&W, where do you guys get
But let's get specific. We're supposed to express coordinate
ideas in parallel form. In particular, no shifting phrases from
one syntactic function to another. What about the ordering
of constituents? Is the following bad writing?
They first decide by vote that -orum is to be the plural ending of
the 'genitive' case ('of the cactuses'), and then they start arguing
about the plural ending for the 'dative' case ('to the
cactuses'). (Guy Deutscher, The
Unfolding of Language (NY: Metropolitan Books, 2005), p.
4. I'll have some quotes from Deutscher just because I happen to be
reading the book right now.)
The non-parallel elements are they
and then they
, with varying orders of adverb and subject. Is
this bad? I think not.
What about conjoining a passive with an active?
... in the latter days of the language,
when the endings on nouns were worn away and disappeared.
(Deutscher, p. 6)
I wouldn't have noticed this "non-parallelism" if I hadn't been looking
for such things.
Once you start taking S&W's bald notion of "parallel form"
seriously, you realize just how silly it is. Are transitives
conjoined with intransitives bad? Main verb VPs conjoined with
auxiliary verb VPs? Positive constituents with negative
ones? NPs with a determiner conjoined with ones without?
NPs with adjectives conjoined with NPs that have none? As in the
following examples, most of them invented:
They drank the poison and died.
They knew the answer and couldn't wait to show off.
They could see the creature but couldn't identify it.
I sing of arms and the man.
She craved boys and strong drink.
What about conjuncts with ellipses? Are they parallel to
conjuncts with explicit elements? Why or why not? Consider
The language machine allows just about
everybody... to tie these meaningless sounds together into an infinite
variety of subtle senses, and all apparently without the slightest
exertion. (Deutscher, p. 2)
Two expressions connected by and
They sure don't look parallel in form. Is this bad?
I could go on like this forever. Most kinds of variation in the
internal form of matched phrases are entirely innocuous. S&W
haven't thought for a minute about what counts as relevant parallelism
in syntactic structure and when it's relevant to rhetorical grace and
effectiveness. What they're doing is arguing from particular
cases: identifying examples they find unacceptable in some way.
assigning a label to the "error" in question, and then proscribing all
instances of that sort. In so doing, they overgeneralize
drastically, barring all sorts of unexceptional examples; their "rules"
make predictions, many of which are just wrong.
So far this is all about rhetoric. No one would, I hope, claim
that any of the examples I've given so far are UNGRAMMATICAL
But at this point S&W pass on to a collection of examples where
many people, including several Language Log posters, would entertain
that possibility. We have reached the borders of WTF-land.
S&W see no boundary here; for them it's all problems with
"parallelism" in some sense or another, who cares which. This is
a disservice to their readers.
And they have no vocabulary at all for talking about the errors they
exhibit, beyond saying that expressions are non-parallel because words
in them are misplaced or missing or incorrectly chosen. They have
no vocabulary because they have no conceptual apparatus for syntactic
structure, in particular the structure of coordinate expressions.
I'm going to have to take the first steps towards remedying these
lacks, just so we can talk about the data.
What we're looking at, mostly, is "factorable coordination", in which conjuncts
Y and Z (I'll restrict
myself to two conjuncts for simplicity) are associated with a factor
X, as in the following:
Mary and her mother shouted.
her mother; factor shouted)
Mary shouted and got her mother's attention.
got her mother's attention;
Mary was tired but happy.
happy; factor was)
Mary bought a screwdriver and hammer.
hammer; factor a)
There's a huge literature on factorable coordination and the conditions
it must satisfy. (Here I tell you that I'm not going to refer to
this literature, or explain where my somewhat idiosyncratic terminology
comes from. This is a Language Log posting, not a journal
article.) Among these are a category likeness condition, a
distributivity condition, and a factor constancy condition, all of
which could be seen as requirements on "parallelism":
Category Likeness: the factors must
belong to the same syntactic category.
Distributivity: the factor must be well-formed in combination with each
of the conjuncts. (Crudely, X (Y + Z) = (XY) + (XZ).)
Factor Constancy: the factor must have the same semantics in
combination with each of the conjuncts.
According to these conditions, the following coordinations are
ill-formed (factors are in small caps, conjuncts in bold face):
*Mary BECAME enamored of the law and a judge at age 30.
(Category Likeness violated: AP vs. NP)
*Analysts say that's evidence Microsoft should -- and likely is -- TAKING GOOGLE
MUCH MORE SERIOUSLY.
(Distributivity violated, because *should taking Google... is
*He PUT OUT his cigar
and the cat.
(Factor Constancy violated: put out 'extinguished' vs. put out 'expelled')
It's long been known that these formulations appear to be too strong;
Category Likeness, in particular, is apparently violable in certain
contexts, as in an example I caught on NPR this morning:
... no proof that the man is dead, or
even a Taliban prisoner.
(In such cases, it's reasonable to ask -- as a great many investigators
have done -- whether the problem lies with the formulation of Category
Likeness or with the notion of SYNTACTIC CATEGORY
The formulations might be too weak; Distributivity, for instance, might
be strengthened by requiring Relational Constancy, that is, by
requiring that the factor bear the same syntactic relation to each of
And there may well be further conditions that don't have to do with
"parallelism" -- a Constituency condition, for instance, requiring that
each conjunct be a single syntactic constituent.
In addition, there are plenty of uses of coordinating conjunctions that
are not, or at least are not obviously, instances of factorable
coordination (as in tags: Mary is a
lawyer, and so is Emma
), and there are several types of
factorable coordination, not all subject to the conditions in the same
Back to S&W. What's supposed to do all the work for S&W
is not the conditions above, but, so far as I can make out, a condition
of Structural Likeness, requiring not identity of category for the
conjuncts -- that is, identity with respect to their external
distribution -- but identity of internal structure. As we saw
above, Structural Likeness (as a principle of syntax) massively makes
the wrong predictions about acceptability (as well as rhetorical
effectiveness). There are a few cases, which I'll look at in a
little while, where it seems to do some work that Category Likeness
doesn't do, but on the whole it's a bad idea. Once you bring out
S&W's implicit assumptions, you can see that they're not very
plausible, and that S&W's discussions are likely to confuse and
S&W's successors have not improved on things. Here I'll look
briefly at the way two recent manuals treat parallelism: Diana Hacker's
Rules for Writers
Bedford/St. Martin's, 2004) and Andrea Lunsford & Robert Connors's The New St. Martin's Handbook
ed., Bedford/St. Martin's, 1999). (S&W, Hacker, and Lunsford
are not entirely random choices on my part. These were among the
authors my Stanford students consulted in their writing classes.)
Hacker's main instruction is justified on rhetorical grounds:
9 Balance parallel ideas.
If two or more ideas are
parallel, they are easier to grasp when expressed in parallel
grammatical form. (p. 87)
This is familiar enough, and not very useful. But then Hacker
introduces a principle not in S&W:
Single words should be balanced with
words, phrases with phrases, clauses with clauses. (p. 87)
Oh dear, this is seriously bizarre advice. Not joining phrases
and clauses (*I asked a few questions
and if I could be allowed to leave early
) is generally good
advice, which would follow from Category Likeness, or possibly Factor
Constancy, as well as from Structural Likeness. But not joining
single words with multi-word phrases is terrible advice; it would,
however, follow from Structural Likeness, though not from any of the
more credible conditions above.
Hacker seems willing to stick to her (largely unarticulated)
principles, though. But at what cost?
Oddly, there are no bad examples of word-phrase mixing given.
There is, in fact, no example at this point in the text of single words
joined with single words. Instead we get (p. 87):
A kiss can be a comma, a question mark,
or an exclamation point.
This is a fine sentence, but is she telling us that there would be
something wrong, even just rhetorically, with a version in which the
indefinite article is factored out?
(4) A kiss can be a comma, question
mark, or exclamation point.
This is a subtle point, subtler than Hacker realizes, I suspect.
To start with, question mark
and exclamation point
written as two-word sequences, but as far as English structure goes,
they're just compound nouns. That is, they're single words.
In which case, (4) involves a coordination of three single words -- comma
, question mark
, and exclamation point
-- and should be
fine by the word/phrase/clause rule.
Well, fine only if the structure of the predicative in (4) has a
in combination with a
coordination of comma
, question mark
, and exclamation point
. But maybe
Hacker is thinking of the conjuncts as the things that are separated by
commas and/or conjunctions in writing, so that the three conjuncts are a comma
and then question mark
and then exclamation point
. If so,
then (4) is not so good rhetorically.
But Hacker probably thinks that question
and exclamation point
are two-word phrases, not single words. Then if (4) has a
structure with a
out, it's not so good rhetorically, because it would have the single
the phrases question mark
the other hand, if a comma
a conjunct in (4), then (4) is rhetorically fine, since it would be a
coordination of three two-word phrases.
So, according to what you think about the structure of (4) and what you
think about the word status of compound nouns, (4) is either
rhetorically fine (in two cases) or not so fine (in two cases).
I'm going on at such length about this one poor example because we --
and the students trying to use Hacker's handbook (let's not forget
about them) -- don't know what her assumptions are on these matters, so
that as soon as we try to go beyond the Mistinguett example, even to a
closely related one, we don't know what to do.
Back in the real world, people do, of course, coordinate single words
with multi-word phrases, all the time. Here's an example from
Deutscher, his second sentence in fact:
Other inventions -- the wheel,
agriculture, sliced bread -- may have transformed our material
existence, but... (p. 1)
There it is: a single word conjoined with a determiner-noun phrase and
an adjective-noun phrase. Sounds great to me.
As with S&W, Hacker starts out with purely rhetorical matters but
then, still marching under the banner of parallelism, advances into the
neighborhood of syntax. By page 89 we're up to the sub-principle:
9a Balance parallel ideas in a
series. Readers expect
items in a series to appear in parallel grammatical form. When
one or more of the items violate readers' expectations, a sentence will
be needlessly awkward.
It's stated as rhetorical advice, but the examples slide into some very
dubious syntax, in particular a coordination of nominal gerunds with an
Hooked on romance novels, I learned
that there is nothing more
important than being rich, looking good, and to have a good time.
[Hacker tells you to alter to have
The gerund-infinitive combination is way down on the acceptability
scale for me, whether as object (above) or subject:
*Winning the race and to get the prize
are my goals.
*To win the race and getting the prize are my goals.
The combination of an -ing
VP and an infinitival VP in verb complements is equally bad:
*It started raining and then to snow.
*It started to rain and then snowing.
This is not some lack of rhetorical finesse. This is rotten
syntax. The question is whether Category Likeness (or some other
credible condition) would bar such combinations. At first glance,
nominal gerunds and infinitival VPs in subject and object positions
look like they should just be NPs from the point of view of their
external syntax, and -ing
and infinitival complements look like they should just be VPs from the
point of view of their external syntax, but these guys just don't like
to coordinate. Structural Likeness would predict this, but it's
pretty much a dead loss otherwise, so the obvious tack to take is to
examine the assignment of syntactic categories to these phrases.
Another technical question of syntax -- technical, but very important.
As it happens, (bad) coordinations of -ing
and infinitival phrases turn up in discussions of parallelism in
virtually every handbook, S&W being a rare exception. Here's
one from Lunsford & Connors (p. 266), an exercise to correct:
To need a new pair of shoes and not
able to afford them is sad.
I cannot believe that such coordinations are ubiquitous in the manuals
because they occur with great frequency in student (or any)
writing. I've been editing other people's writing for about fifty
years now, and I don't recall coming across any such examples.
The ones in the manuals all look invented; certainly, they're not
attributed, though failures of Distributivity (a very frequent type of
"faulty parallelism", and not only in student writing) sometimes
are. I can't help thinking that the coordinations of -ing
-form and infinitival phrases
found their way into the handbooks BECAUSE
clear violations of Structural Likeness.
Structural Likeness is a blunt instrument, and Hacker wields it to bash
some relatively innocent types of examples. On page 90, under
"parallel ideas linked with coordinating conjunctions", she disapproves
of an -ing
coordinated with an ordinary NP:
At Lincoln High School, vandalism can
result in suspension or even
being expelled from school. [Hacker recommends altering being
expelled to expulsion.]
And from an exercise on p. 92:
Activities on Wednesday afternoons
include fishing trips,
computer training, and learning to dance.
Similarly, from Lunsford & Connors (p. 263):
The duties of the job include
baby-sitting, house-cleaning, and
preparation of meals. [L&C recommend altering preparation
of to preparing]
And on page 91, under "comparisons linked with than
", she similarly
disparages matching of nominal gerunds with infinitivals, in either
It is easier to speak in abstractions
than grounding one's thoughts in
reality. [Hacker says grounding
should be altered to to ground.]
Mother could not persuade me that
giving is as much joy as to
receive. [Hacker says to
receive should be altered to receiving.]
The first three of these sound just fine to me. The other two are
a bit more awkward, but not unacceptable, I think, and the problem with
the Mother's persuasion sentence has as much to do, I think, with the
enormous formality of infinitival VP subjects (To receive is a great joy
) as with
any failure of parallelism.
The larger point is that it's a mistake to treat these examples
together with the really awful coordinations of -ing
-form and infinitival
Then Hacker turns to the repetition (or omission) of function words in
parallel constructions, instructing the student to:
9c Repeat function words to
...Although they can sometimes be omitted, include them whenever they
signal parallel structures that otherwise might be missed by readers.
Think of this as the Mistinguett Rule: Go for a comma, a question mark, or an
, not for a
comma, question mark, or exclamation point
. The problem here is
that the student is supposed to be able to judge when parallel
structures might be missed by readers. Well, if the students knew
that, they wouldn't need Hacker's advice. In the absence of such
knowledge, they are in effect being urged by Hacker to always repeat
function words, just to be safe. This can make for some mighty
Granted, sometimes the repeated function word could be helpful, as in
Hacker's example from page 91:
Many smokers try switching to a brand
they find distasteful
or a low tar and nicotine cigarette. [Hacker says to insert to after or.]
But on other occasions, it's not so clear that repetition is is the
right strategy, as in Hacker's exercise on page 92:
Jan wanted to drive to the wine country
or at least [to] Sausalito.
(Surely a comma after wine country
would be enough to fix this one.)
In any case, prepositions omitted in second conjuncts are routine:
There is no longer fierce debate, for
instance, about whether the earth is round or flat, and [about] whether
it revolves around the sun or vice versa. (Deutscher, p. 16)
In one case, infinitivals, Hacker's advice just goes against the
grain. Omission of to
in second conjuncts is incredibly common. Two examples from
... we'll have to dig beneath the
surface of language and [to] expose some of its familiar aspects in an
unfamiliar light. (p. 10)
... it will be possible to synthesize all these findings into one
ambitious thought-experiment, and [to] project them on to the remote
past. (p. 11)
(I hope you'll have noticed that all of the Deutscher examples come from
the first few pages of this 358-page book. This stuff is gut-easy
Finally, there are Distributivity violations of several types, mostly
of the sort discussed in the faulty
article in Merriam
Webster's Dictionary of English Usage
, where they are viewed as
venial sins, if sins they are. For instance, placement of matched
coordinators like either... or
, and (Hacker, p.
92) not only... but also
During basic training, I was not only
told what to do but also
what to think.
The streets were not only too steep but also were too narrow
for anything other than pedestrian traffic.
Some Distributivity violations arise from letting the second conjunct
determine the form of the factor that follows, when the first conjunct
would require a different form in the factor; that is, these violations
are a species of "determination by the nearest", related to the very
common phenomenon of agreement with the nearest (... my admiration for her versatility and
artistry have continued to grow
-- Bay Area Reporter
, 5/26/05, p. 38).
A very common subtype (in real life, not just advice manuals) involves
government of verb forms by auxiliaries:
Mayor Davis never has and never will
accept a bribe. (Hacker, p. 93)
I had never before and would never see such a sight. (Lunsford
& Connors, p. 263)
Another common subtype involves selection of prepositions by verbs or
other head words:
Many South Pacific Islanders still
believe and live by ancient rules. (Hacker, p. 93)
I mostly judge instances of determination by the nearest to be
straightforwardly ungrammatical, in contrast to misplaced matched
coordinators, many examples of which I accept without question.
In any case, determination by the nearest is, in general, a more
serious violation than misplaced matched coordinators, so that it's a
mistake for advice manuals to just lump them together.
Both handbooks identify the problem in determination by the nearest as
omission of words: "Add words needed to complete compound structures"
(Hacker, p. 93); "including all necessary words" (Lunsford &
Connors, p. 263). Now, adding words is the fix for the problem,
but the advice to add words as necessary is deeply unhelpful.
Students have to figure out when these extra words are required, what
they are, and where they go, and for this they need much more specific
In any case, Distributivity is a principle of grammar (concerning
well-formedness), not of rhetoric (concerning effectiveness), while the
Mistinguett Rule is a principle of rhetoric, not grammar. In both
cases, you can argue about when the principles apply and when they do
not, but they're principles of very different sorts, and it's a mistake
to think of them simply as species of "faulty parallelism".
zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu
Posted by Arnold Zwicky at July 10, 2005 01:18 PM