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Parallel Structure in Biographical Articles

September 22, 2011

Which sentence employs the more grammatically pleasing structure?

  1. John Denver is remembered for his passionate music, his effervescent spirit, and his love of nature.   OR
  2. John Denver is remembered for his passionate music, the effervescence of his spirit, and his love of nature.

Most readers will prefer the first sentence because the descriptions run smoothly (possessive pronoun, adjective, noun). In the second sentence, “the effervescence of his spirit” breaks away from the pattern and forces the reader to readjust his comprehension.

Every college writing course pounds this form of parallel structure (or parallelism) into students’ pens. But parallelism doesn’t stop at the period. For the experienced writer, it can extend throughout a whole paragraph, or even a whole argument. My favorite example is Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech in which he used a driving, emotional “key phrase” in every sentence. (If you listen closely, he also used parallel inflection to deliver the lines.)

How does parallel structure apply to writing biographical articles?

Writing a biographical article for an online journal or a newspaper is inherently difficult, because the author must not only maintain his readers’ interest through all aspects of the story but also advance his main argument at every juncture in the narrative. By employing parallel structures at key points in the article, the author can create a recurring rhythm. Just as the chorus of a song brings the listener back to the overall theme after every stanza, a recurring rhythm in a biography brings the reader back to the argument after every episode.

But enough of my explanation. Let’s have a look at a fantastic–and, at a whopping 5,000 words, lengthy–article from Tablet Magazine. This is how Allison Hoffman ends each of her three main sections. (In order to show the types of parallel structures used, I will highlight them with differet font colors.)

1. As one long-time observer of Israeli politics noted, “If you look at Ron [Dermer], you see Bibi [Netanyahu].” This week, when the prime minister addresses the member states of the United Nations, amid heated debate and a potential vote on Palestinian statehood, the face the world will see will be Netanyahu’s, but the words they hear—many of them, at least—will be Dermer’s.

2. By that time, Dermer was known as the country’s leading expert on the Russian vote, and during the campaign, Sharansky offered his protégé’s expertise to Netanyahu’s faltering leadership campaign. According to Sharansky, Netanyahu was unnerved by the hard news Dermer delivered. “Bibi calls me and says, this guy [Dermer] really hates me,” Sharansky said. “But the next time they met they fell in love.”

3. That spring, nearly a decade after arriving in Israel, Dermer was dispatched to Washington in his first official government capacity, as the Israeli Embassy’s minister for economic affairs, under the auspices of Netanyahu, who was then serving as minister of finance under Ariel Sharon. Taking the job required Dermer, at 33, to give up his American citizenship. By then he had remarried—his wife, Rhoda, is a Yale-trained lawyer—and become a father. In a column for the New York Sun, Dermer offered a public goodbye: “I will never renounce America or its people. As a faithful son of America, I will never betray its ideals. In serving the State of Israel and in working to secure our common future, I will champion those ideals all of my life. May God forever bless America.”

The texts in maroon represent a classical parallel structure: a chronological adjective phrase preceding the subject of the sentence.  Each of these comes at or near the beginning of the paragraph, setting the stage for the repeated idea.

In blue we find the repeated characters: Ron Dermer, Bibi Netanyahu, and in the second section, Natan Sharansky.

The phrases in olive all describe negative incidents that provide the contexts for the paragraphs’ main points.

Lastly, the pink texts deliver the paragraphs’ main points, all of which pair a negative perception with a positive reality. By filling these end-of-section paragraphs with similar structures, Hoffman signaled a return to the nuanced influence of Dermer’s American ideas (he’s a native Floridian on the Israeli Prime Minister, Bibi Netanyahu.

As a copy editor here at Letter Perfect Copyediting, part of my job is to strengthen authors’ rhythms. Personally, I would have recommended tidying up the parallel structures a bit to make them even more clear. As they stand, the parallels are a little difficult to detect and, although subtlety has advantages, it is more important to draw readers’ attentions to the main argument.

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