Examples of Parallelism in Literature and Rhetoric

, Staff Writer
Updated June 24, 2020
MLK I have a dream quote
    MLK I have a dream quote
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Parallelism is often referred to as one of the basic principles of grammar and rhetoric, and you’ll see its use throughout literature. Parallelism has slightly different meanings, depending on the context, but it’s about balancing the weight or structure of ideas and phrases. In rhetoric, parallelism means balancing two or more ideas or arguments that are equally important. In grammar, it means using phrasing that is grammatically similar or identical in structure, sound, meaning, or meter. As you can see from literary examples, this technique adds symmetry, effectiveness, and balance to the written piece.

Parallelism in Rhetoric

Parallelism in rhetoric is used to persuade, motivate, and/or evoke emotional responses in an audience and is often used in speeches. The balance between clauses or phrases makes complex thoughts easier to process while holding the reader's or listener's attention. The balance in importance is also an essential element; each phrase or idea should be as important as its counterpart.

Some examples of parallelism in rhetoric include the following:

  • "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today." - Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • "My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." -John F. Kennedy
  • "I don't want to live on in my work. I want to live on in my apartment." -Woody Allen
  • "Today's students can put dope in their veins or hope in their brains. If they can conceive it and believe it, they can achieve it. They must know it is not their aptitude but their attitude that will determine their altitude." -Jesse Jackson
  • "For the end of a theoretical science is truth, but the end of a practical science is performance." -Aristotle
  • "My fellow citizens: I stand here today humbled by the task before us, grateful for the trust you have bestowed, mindful of the sacrifices borne by our ancestors." -Barack Obama
  • "One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." -Neil Armstrong
  • "We've seen the unfurling of flags, the lighting of candles, the giving of blood, the saying of prayers." -George W. Bush

You can also see rhetorical parallelism used in longer speeches, such as this example by John F. Kennedy:

"The Ireland of 1963, one of the youngest of nations and the oldest of civilizations, has discovered that the achievement of nationhood is not an end but a beginning. In the years since independence, you have undergone a new and peaceful revolution, an economic and industrial revolution, transforming the face of this land while still holding to the old spiritual and cultural values. You have modernized your economy, harnessed your rivers, diversified your industry, liberalized your trade, electrified your farms, accelerated your rate growth, and improved the living standard of your people."


Parallelism in Literature

The opening paragraph of Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities is perhaps the best-known example of parallelism in literature. Parallelism is shown by using "it was" to connect opposing ideas.

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way."

William Shakespeare often used parallelism in his plays. Consider the following excerpt from Richard II.

"I'll give my jewels for a set of beads,

My gorgeous palace for a hermitage,

My gay apparel for an almsman's gown,

My figured goblets for a dish of wood,

My scepter for a palmer's walking staff

My subjects for a pair of carved saints

and my large kingdom for a little grave."

Diazeugma, using a number of verbs to describe a subject, is also a form of parallelism. This can be seen in Vacation '58, a short story by John Hughes.

"It wasn't a big cliff. It was only about four feet high. But it was enough to blow out the front tire, knock off the back bumper, break Dad's glasses, make Aunt Edythe spit out her false teeth, spill a jug of Kool-Aid, bump Missy's head, spread the Auto Bingo pieces all over, and make Mark do number two."

Shooting an Elephant, an essay by George Orwell, uses the experience of hunting an aggressive elephant in Burma as a metaphor for British Imperialism. Starting each phrase with "some" creates a parallel structure that reinforces how easy it is for observers of the same event to have entirely different opinions.

"Some of the people said that the elephant had gone in one direction, some said that he had gone in another, some professed not even to have heard of any elephant."

The poem The Tyger by William Blake uses repetition of "what" to create a pleasing rhythm.

"What the hammer? what the chain?

In what furnace was thy brain?

What the anvil? What dread grasp

Dare its deadly terrors clasp?"

How Do I Love Thee? by Elizabeth Barrett Browning also creates rhythmic verse with repetition of the parallel structure "I love thee."

"How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

I love thee to the depth and breadth and height

My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight

For the ends of being and ideal grace.

I love thee to the level of every day's

Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.

I love thee freely, as men strive for right.

I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.

I love thee with the passion put to use

In my old griefs, and with my childhood's faith.

I love thee with a love I seemed to lose

With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,

Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,

I shall but love thee better after death."

Community by John Donne contrasts ideas of "good" and "love" with "ill"and "hate" using parallel structure.

"Good we must love, and must hate ill,

For ill is ill, and good good still;

But there are things indifferent,

Which we may neither hate, nor love,

But one, and then another prove,

As we shall find our fancy bent."

E.E. Cummings' poem, love is more thicker than forget, uses the words "love is" and "more" or "less" to create a parallel structure that explains the meaning of love.

"love is more thicker than forget

more thinner than recall

more seldom than a wave is wet

more frequent than to fail

it is most mad and moonly

and less it shall unbe

than all the sea which only

is deeper than the sea

love is less always than to win

less never than alive

less bigger than the least begin

less littler than forgive"


Understanding Parallel Construction

Parallelism uses similar words, phrases, or clauses to show that ideas have the same level of importance. This structure improves readability by giving a natural flow to a written work.

For native speakers of English, parallelism is often instinctive. We say, "I like reading, writing, and painting" instead of "I like to read, writing, and painting."

Mistakes in Parallel Construction

However, one common mistake novice writers make involves failing to keep items in a list after a colon in a parallel form. For example, "Writers can use an online dictionary to find help with these issues: word meanings, pronunciations, and finding correct spellings" does not use a parallel construction. Changing the text to read, "Writers can use an online dictionary to find help with these issues: word meanings, pronunciations, and correct spellings" gives it a parallel construction and improves readability.


More Examples of Parallel Structure

Additional examples of parallel sentence structure include the following:

  • Mother was very busy gathering the laundry, dusting the furniture, and washing the dishes.
  • He likes television shows that have deep characters, interesting stories, and good actors.
  • My face is washed, my hair is combed, and my teeth are brushed.
  • We are giving away our furniture, selling our house, and moving to Spain.
  • To succeed in life, you need to take advantage of opportunities and to follow your dreams.

Other Literary Devices Used With Parallelism

As you use parallel construction in your writing or begin to identify it in the literature you read, you’ll see that it also goes with other literary devices:

  • Rhythm - The meter or rhythm of the repeated elements are often similar. You’ll see the same stressed syllables in a pattern in the parallel elements of the sentence or piece.
  • Repetition - At its root, parallelism is about repetition. The phrase structure or impact of an idea is repeated to make it more powerful.
  • Antithesis - A sophisticated way to use parallelism is to contrast two different ideas with the same structure.
  • Alliteration - Using the same sounds for a list of items or similar phrases helps further enhance the parallelism.

Stay Balanced in Your Writing

Reading written text out loud is often an effective way to identify examples of parallelism or areas that need editing to maintain a parallel structure. Listening to the rhythm of words as they flow from your tongue will help you maintain the desired balance in your writing, whether you're writing a persuasive essay or a romantic love poem.