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Parallel Structure on the SAT Writing & Language and ACT English Section

Parallel structure refers to the repetition of a chosen form within a certain grammatical framework. Understanding parallel structure is important because once understood, it's easily identified, and can make for easy points on the SAT or ACT.



After you've learned about parallel structure, you'll see that it pops up everywhere. Since many of us speak, write, and read using non-parallel structure, it can be difficult to detect the problem in sentences on the SAT / ACT where it appears. Understanding parallel structure will help you understand subtle and nuanced mistakes on questions that most students get wrong.

Although the definition of parallel structure may sound a little abstract, it's conceptually simple. Let's look at a couple of examples:

Example #1 Example of parallel structure:

'Maggie likes to eat chips, drink juice, and walk around the room.'


Now the same sentence, without parallel structure:

'Maggie likes to eat chips, drink juice, and walking around the room.'



Notice that these three elements - eating chips, drinking juice, and walking around the room - are in the same framework. They're the things that "Maggie likes to" do. In the non-parallel structure, the form of the third verb is different than that of the first two. The third verb has an "ing"; the first two don't.


Example #2

Example of parallel structure:

'He became angry because the work was shoddy, expensive, and prolonged.'


The same sentence without parallel structure: 'He became angry because the work was shoddy, expensive, and took too long to finish.'


In the first sentence, all three words in the list are adjectives. In the second, two are adjectives and the third employs a verb. Therefore, there's a lack of parallelism.



When Is Parallel Structure Relevant? There are three main grammar structures where parallelism can kick into place: 1. Lists

Lists are grouped items or activities, separated by commas.

Examples of lists:

  • She eats pears, apples, and oranges.

  • I don't want to read, write, or study today.

  • The table was sturdy, black, and small.

The examples given above use lists. Lists are the most common grammar form for parallelism questions on the SAT or ACT. That's because it's easier to sneak in a non-parallel element when there are three elements rather than two; it becomes more difficult to detect.


Please note: the overwhelming majority of questions on parallel structure on the SAT / ACT are centered on lists. This is because in a list, there are three or more items, making it easier to sneak in non-parallel structure undetected.



If you feel that knowing how to address most cases of parallelism is sufficient, and you're not interested in complicated grammatical details, you can skip the other two cases by clicking here.


2. FANBOYS (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so)

Example of non-parallel structure with FANBOYS: 'Linda told Bill she was busy and to leave her alone.'

Same sentence with parallel structure:

Linda told Bill she was busy, and wanted to be left alone.


The first sentence uses a description of Linda before the 'and' ('she was busy'), and a command to Bill after it. In the second sentence, both phrases are descriptions of Linda. ('she was busy', 'wanted to be left alone.')


3. Correlative Conjunctions

Correlative conjunctions are paired words/phrases that connect two clauses.

Examples of correlative conjunctions:

  • either...or

  • neither...nor

  • if...then

  • not only...but also


Example of non-parallel structure with correlative conjunctions:

'Sarah enjoys not only fishing, but to sail as well.'

The same sentence with parallel structure:

''Sarah enjoys not only fishing, but sailing as well.'



Another example of non-parallel structure:

'Sarah not only enjoys fishing, but sailing as well.'

The same sentence with parallel structure:

' Sarah not only enjoys fishing, but she enjoys sailing as well.'


Please note: the form of each element in the parallel structure is that following the first phrase of the correlative conjunction.


So for example, the first example given here is ''Sarah enjoys not only fishing, but sailing as well.' The first phrase of the correlative conjunction, 'not only' comes immediately before 'fishing'. 'Fishing' is now the format of the element in the parallel structure.


But the second example is ' Sarah not only enjoys fishing, but she enjoys sailing as well.' Here, 'not only' precedes the phrase, 'enjoys fishing.' Therefore, the common element in parallel structures is the word 'enjoys' (or a synonym), followed by a noun.



Some Comments On Parallel Structure

1. There are other grammar forms to which the concept of parallel structure applies, but they're rarely used on the SAT / ACT.


2. While non-parallel structure can be grammatically correct, parallel structure is considered more readable. In SAT / ACT terms, that translates into "better."



3. The most common form of parallelism questions is with 'ing' verbs. There are other examples, and they're used, but these are the most prominent.



Examples


Example #1:

'Taking on the public interest, investigative journalism involves original, often long-form reporting on such topics as 37 illegal activities, street crime, corporate wrongdoing, and political corruption.'


Question 37:

A) NO CHANGE

B) business scandals

C) abuse of government power

D) DELETE the underlined portion. (1)


This is a list of four things: 'illegal activities', 'street crime', 'corporate wrongdoing', and 'political corruption.' Note that the last three items are specific examples of the first, 'illegal activities.' In order to restore parallelism, we need to either replace 'illegal activities' with another specific example of 'illegal activities', or else remove it entirely.


Options B) and C) don't help, since they themselves are generalities for examples listed in the sentence: 'corporate wrongdoing' is an example of 'business scandals', and 'political corruption' is an example of 'abuse of government power.'


The only remaining option would therefore be D), to eliminate the underlined portion.




Example #2:

'Many people think of NASA’s programs as trivial. In truth, the agency has a widespread positive effect on society by serving as a catalyst for innovation and scientific understanding, 3 to create jobs, and showing humanity its place within the universe.' Question 3:

A) NO CHANGE

B) creating jobs,

C) for job creation,

D) the creation of jobs, (2)


This is another list question, and one centered on '-ing' verbs. The first item in the list is 'serving as a catalyst for innovation and scientific understanding", the second is "to create jobs", and the third is "showing humanity its place within the universe." Since both the first and third item start with a '-ing' verb, the second should also. So the correct answer is B), 'creating jobs.'


Example #3:

'Seawater seeping into fissures in the ocean floor is heated by underlying magma, and the heat drives chemical reactions that remove oxygen, sulfates, 5 and remove other chemicals from the water.'


Question 5:

A) NO CHANGE

B) it also removes

C) also removing

D) and (3)


There are two ways to create parallel structure in this sentence:

  1. 'Seawater seeping into fissures in the ocean floor is heated by underlying magma, and the heat drives chemical reactions that remove oxygen, sulfates, and other chemicals from the water.'

  2. 'Seawater seeping into fissures in the ocean floor is heated by underlying magma, and the heat drives chemical reactions that remove oxygen, remove sulfates, and remove other chemicals from the water.'



In its current state, the list elements could be one of two things:

  1. the item being removed

  2. the verb "remove", followed by the item being removed

Since the second element, "sulfates", is not attached to the word "remove", and we have no ability to change that, sentence 1. must be the correct one.


Note that although sentence 2. exhibits parallel structure, its unnecessary repetition renders it less readable and thus suboptimal, even if it had been an option in the answer choices.



Example #4:

'She talked about accepting the Presidential Medal of Freedom, giving a TED talk, and 9 when she was a flag bearer in the 2006 Winter Olympics.'


Question 9:

A) NO CHANGE

B) when she was bearing one of the flags

C) bearing one of the flags

D) how she was a flag bearer (4)


The list elements are the things "she talked about": "accepting the Presidential Medal of Freedom", "giving a TED talk", and "when she was a flag bearer." Since the first two elements use "-ing" verbs, the third element should use one as well. The correct answer is C), "bearing one of the flags."




How Should You Approach Parallel Structure on the SAT / ACT?

1. As mentioned previously, questions on parallel structure occur most often in connection with lists. When you see a list question, check automatically if parallelism applies.


2. If you see a question centered on FANBOYS or correlative conjunctions, and there's no obvious problem, check for parallel structure. It just might be the key to the answer.



For more tips and methods, or to get help personally tailored to your needs, consider working with me. I've helped people from all over the world get into their dream school. Studying privately with a skilled teacher is the best way to increase your test score, and in coaching you, I adopt my methods specifically to your personality, schedule, and learning style.


Happy learning,

Tova




(1) 'SAT Practice Test #5 | SAT Suite of Assessments – The College Board', https://collegereadiness.collegeboard.org/pdf/sat-practice-test-5.pdf

Accessed 7 Feb. 2022


(2) 'SAT Practice Test #7 | SAT Suite of Assessments – The College Board', https://collegereadiness.collegeboard.org/pdf/sat-practice-test-7.pdf

Accessed 7 Feb. 2022


(3) 'SAT Practice Test #9 | SAT Suite of Assessments – The College Board',

https://collegereadiness.collegeboard.org/pdf/sat-practice-test-9.pdf

Accessed 7 Feb. 2022


(4) 'Crack SAT | New SAT Writing & Language Practice Test 7',

https://b.testpapers.net/sat/e/wl04.pdf

Accessed 7 Feb. 2022