Grammar Gremlins: On the Parallel Bars

Here’s a quick quiz for you. Which one of these list items doesn’t quite fit?

The Grammar Gremlins are:

  • Monthly visitors to the newsletter
  • Mischievous critters on their own time
  • Teach little bits of usage lore
  • Cuddly, multicolored beasties

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If you spotted the third, “teach little bits of usage lore,” you are a Gremlin ace. The problem here is that items one, two, and four are properly preceded by the “are” in the introductory line, while “The Grammar Gremlins are teach little bits of usage lore” is clearly wrong, and should be brought into parallel construction with the other three.

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Here’s one solution. The Grammar Gremlins:

  • Are monthly visitors to the newsletter
  • Are mischievous critters on their own time
  • Teach little bits of usage lore
  • Are cuddly, multicolored beasties

.

But that sounds rather cumbersome and repetitious, and really doesn’t look right.

Try it this way. The Grammar Gremlins are:

  • Monthly visitors to the newsletter
  • Mischievous critters on their own time
  • Diligent teachers of usage lore
  • Cuddly, multicolored beasties

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The point here is that items in a bullet list like this should follow the same grammatical construction. (Or, as Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style puts it, “express coordinate ideas in similar form.”) In the third example, all the items are, at heart, nouns. Adjectives or verbs work here, too.

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But wait, you say. I write fiction—how often do I need a bullet list? (In mystery? Romantic suspense? Now I’m wandering off in search of a joke.) Not often, if ever, but the concept applies to sentence structure as well.

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With verbs: The Grammar Gremlins visit the newsletter monthly, get into trouble on their own time, try to teach a bit of grammar, and appear on my blog as cuddly, multicolored beasts.

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With adjectives: The Grammar Gremlins are steady, mischievous, educated, and cuddly.

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Here are a couple of simple sentence structure examples (from Pinckert’s Practical Grammar):

By walking I save money as well as getting exercise.

Corrected: By walking I save money and get exercise.

She is a woman of great beauty, and who has great wealth.

Corrected: She is a woman of great beauty and wealth. Or, for stronger emphasis, She is a woman of great beauty and great wealth.

I want to laugh and to sing and make love.

Corrected: I want to laugh, sing, and make love. (Note my Oxford comma here, unless your scene requires simultaneous singing and love making. I’m not judging.) Or, more expansively, I want to laugh, to sing, and to make love.

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This month’s bonus nitpick: In the newspaper this morning, in a sad story about the discovery of a mass grave of small children in Ireland, the reporter wrote, “She pledged that the children’s descendants would be consulted . . .” Alas, these unfortunate infants and toddlers did not leave descendants. Relatives, perhaps, but not descendants.

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Bonus spelling confession: I misspell mischievous Every Single Time. Thank goodness for spell check (but don’t forget its limits!).

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