How and Why to Make your Lists Parallel (And what does parallel mean?)

In an earlier post, I looked at how to punctuate bulleted lists.  And I promised to address another important rule for bulleted lists: Write parallel lists. What exactly does that mean?

Writing parallel lists simply means that each item in the list has the same structure. To be parallel, each item in the list might

  • start with the same part of speech (e.g., noun, verb)
  • use the same verb tense (e.g., present, past, future)
  • use the same voice (e.g., active or passive)
  • use the same sentence type (e.g., statement, question)

For example, in the bulleted list above, each item starts with a verb in the present tense and includes an example in parenthesis.

So, why does this matter? Similarly structured information—parallelism in bulleted lists—is easier for the reader to process. The reader’s eye (and ear) is primed for the pattern of the information.

It’s easy to see how parallelism helps the reader by looking at—or reading aloud—a list that is not parallel.

Key elements of a successful staff flu vaccination campaign include

  • informing employees about the vaccination plan
  • educating employees about its importance
  • employees should be notified about when they can get flu shots

Huh? Did you have to read this list twice?  Because the first two bullets begin with a verb form ending in ing (a gerund), beginning the third bullet with a noun (employees) is particularly jarring. It violates the structure set up in the first two bullets.

Here’s the list with the third bullet rewritten using the same structure as the first two.

Key elements of a successful staff flu vaccination campaign include

  • informing employees about the vaccination plan
  • educating employees about its importance
  • notifying employees about when they can get flu shots

Better? Parallel bullets set up a rhythm that the reader can rely on.

Parallelism isn’t a new concept. Julius Caesar knew its power:

  • I came.
  • I saw.
  • I conquered.

Simple to read and understand!

Have you had enough about bulleted lists?  Or do you still have a question that you’d like me to  answer in a blog post?

–Marilynne Rudick (guest blogger)

Comments

It's a little known fact that Roman oratory and writing was full of highly parallel lists of concepts. Points like Veni Vidi Vici were actually called "weighted darts," or "plumbata" in Latin. (Unfortunately for Caesar, bullets had not yet been invented.)

Posted by: dbkayanda | October 31, 2008 at 10:38:25am

Thanks for this and the other post on bullet lists. Just to note that the link in your first line to "how to punctuate bulleted lists" is broken. I'm subscribing.

Posted by: Ian Webster | March 28, 2013 at 11:09:11am

It's a very good report. I'm studying English at the university and I've had some issues trying to understand what parallelism is, but now with your explaination, everything is clear to me. Thank you so much! Sincerely, Nelson

Posted by: Nelson Pazmiño R. | November 3, 2014 at 10:48:26am

I am glad to learn a lot about parallelism as I am studying English and Introduction to Instruction and curriculum. I am certain this very important information helps me a long way. Thank you.

Posted by: Sia'a Alama | July 28, 2018 at 07:28:25pm

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