Editing Workshop, 6: Parallelism

Chances are you’ve been told at least once by an editor, a teacher, or another writer that “this construction isn’t parallel.” Or someone has scrawled “faulty parallelism” in the margin of your manuscript or in a comment on your Word file.

This is shorthand for straying from, as Words Into Type puts it, “the principle that parts of a sentence that are parallel in meaning should be parallel in structure.”

Faulty parallelism comes in an daunting array of varieties. It can involve nouns, verbs, phrases, clauses, and whole sentences. It’s easiest to spot in a list, like this one:

These tips might help you complete a long writing project:

  • Schedule a specific time for writing.
  • Write even when you don’t feel inspired.
  • No distractions.

The first two elements are imperative verbs. The third has no verb at all. This is an easy fix: make the third element parallel to the first two by adding a verb. “Avoid distractions”? “Ignore distractions”? “Resist distractions”? It’s your call.

Faulty parallelism can be harder to spot in a sentence, especially a long, complex sentence — which is exactly where parallelism tends to go off the rails, so to speak. The list above can be turned into a sentence: “To complete a long writing project, schedule a specific time for writing, write even if you don’t feel inspired, and no distractions.” The sentence is short enough to make it pretty clear that something’s wrong.

The longer the sentence, the harder it can be to keep track of its parts. Here’s where the ability to diagram sentences can be very helpful. If you didn’t learn it in school or have forgotten how, plenty of websites out there can give you the basics, including “How to Diagram Sentences” on WikiHow.

It happens often enough that the parallelism is faulty but the meaning is still clear. I encounter many sentences like this one: “She let the dog in, gave him his supper, and then they went for a walk.” It sets off to be a series of three verbs with the subject “she,” but then the subject changes. What we’ve actually got here is two independent clauses, the first of which has two verbs, the second of which has one: “She let the dog in and gave him his supper, and then they went for a walk.”

I sometimes feel a little pedantic inserting the conjunction, because the meaning is clear, but often enough the meaning isn’t clear, or the sentence can be interpreted in more than one way. The other day I came across a doozy in a nonfiction book I’m copyediting. In this example, I’ve changed the details but retained the structure of the original. The original subject was a man who never wrote a best-selling novel and didn’t go to Spain either.

Mindy Moore had not begun to think about traveling to Spain, still less write her best-selling novel.

See the problem? There are three verbs in the first part of the sentence — “begun,” “think,” and “traveling” — and it’s not obvious which one “write” is meant to be parallel with. Keeping in mind that even very good writers occasionally mess up our verb tenses, you could read this in (at least) three ways, some of which might not be accurate.

  • Mindy Moore had not begun to think about traveling to Spain, still less written her best-selling novel. (“Written” is parallel with “begun”: “Mindy had not begun . . . and had not written . . .” If this were the intended meaning, I would probably insert “yet” before “begun” to make it even clearer.)
  • Mindy Moore had not begun to think about traveling to Spain, still less to write her best-selling novel. (“To write” is parallel with “to think,” meaning that Mindy hadn’t begun either to write her best-selling novel or to think about traveling to Spain.)
  • Mindy Moore had not begun to think about traveling to Spain, still less about writing her best-selling novel. (“Writing” is parallel to “traveling,” meaning that Mindy hadn’t even begun to think about writing her best-selling novel.)

Context gave me no clue about which of the three options was intended, but my gut said it was probably #2 because it was the easiest to clarify: add the “to” to show that “to write” was an infinitive and therefore parallel with “to think.” So I added the “to,” but I also queried the author and explained the other options. He’s the only one who knows for sure what he intended and what was in the subject’s head.

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V Is for Verb

This one’s going to be short because I’ve got a job due today. It isn’t an especially long or complicated job, and I’ve had plenty of time to get it done, but as usual it was contending with other jobs that had earlier deadlines.

So — verbs. Verbs are indispensable. You pretty much can’t have a sentence without a verb, but a verb can be a sentence with no help from any other parts of speech: Stop! Go! Read!

They’re also versatile. From verbs grow gerunds, which function as nouns and can actually turn into nouns: Reading is fundamental. I haven’t finished the reading.

From verbs grow participles, past and present, which can function as adjectives: After the baked loaves came out of the oven, she put her baking utensils away.

Dangling participles are something editors and writers have to watch out for, but I hope they never go away because some of them are very funny. Here’s one from the Oxford Dictionaries online: “If found guilty, the lawsuit could cost the company $12 billion.” The default subject for “found” is “the lawsuit,” but lawsuits are generally not tried in court. If it’s the company on trial, then make it “If the company is found guilty, the lawsuit could cost it $12 billion” — but without more context we don’t know that for sure. It might be one of the company’s higher-ups.

Infinitives can dangle too — to submit your manuscript, it must have one-inch margins on all sides — but what makes many people nervous about infinitives is the splitting, not the dangling. This worry arose because in other languages, notably Latin, infinitives are one word and can’t be split. In English the infinitive includes to: “to submit,” It’s definitely possible to slip another word or two between “to” and its verb, and often it’s a good idea. Placement of an adverb, say, can affect the cadence or emphasis of a sentence or line of poetry.

Infinitives are versatile little buggers. Don’t be afraid of them.

What turns some ordinarily mild-mannered editors and teachers into wild-eyed partisans these days is the verbing of nouns. “Verbing weirds language,” says Calvin in a classic Calvin & Hobbes strip from January 25, 1993.

My editorial mentor, ca. 1980, couldn’t abide the verbing of “target.” Some while later I took up the cudgel against “impact.” Some while even later than that, it dawned on me that it wasn’t a big step from “to aim at a target” to “to target,” or from “to have an impact” to “to impact.” Sure, “affect” means pretty much the same thing, but “impact” makes a bigger boom.

Where I do draw the line is when a verb spawns a noun that is then unnecessarily verbed: administer -> administration -> administrate. No no no no.

The manuscript that’s due back at the publisher’s today isn’t a cookbook, but it does contain some recipes. One suggests that you “may brulee the marshmallows until golden brown” before putting them on top of your spiked hot chocolate.

I screeched to a halt. “Crème brûlée” I knew: a custard with a layer of caramelized sugar on top. I knew enough French to recognize “brûlée” as the feminine past participle of brûler, to burn. Since I don’t edit cookbooks but I do know that cookbookery has its own conventions, I wondered if “brulee” had been verbed in cookbook English, and if so, should the diacritics be included?

Off I trotted to the Editors Association of Earth group on Facebook, whose members include editors in myriad fields who speak a daunting array of languages. What I learned was that diacritics are customarily used in good cookbooks but that “brulee” didn’t seem to have been verbed in English.

At this point I realized that the big problem had nothing to do with verbing or diacritics. The big problem is that the author hadn’t made it clear what you were supposed to do with the marshmallows. Unlike crème brûlée, marshmallows aren’t sprinkled with a layer of sugar that can be caramelized with a torch. Around campfires or fireplaces marshmallows are generally toasted, but how about in the kitchen?

Clearly it was time to go back to Q for query, so that’s what I’ve done.

T Is for That

That is a handy and versatile word. It can be an adjective:

That puppy followed me home.

Or an adverb:

Are you that sure of yourself?

Or a pronoun, standing in for a person, place, thing, event, or anything else that is clear from context:

That is the way we’ve always done it.

Or a conjunction:

She insisted that we show up on time.

Or a relative pronoun, which is sort of a cross between a pronoun and a conjunction:

Any map that shows my road as two-way needs to be updated.

In the grammar and usage section of the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS), Bryan Garner puts it more elegantly: “A relative pronoun is one that introduces a dependent (or relative) clause and relates it to the independent clause. Relative pronouns in common use are who, which, what, and that” (CMS 16th ed., section 5.54).

Here’s where things get interesting, maybe a little confusing, and sometimes even contentious. These “dependent (or relative) clauses” can be either restrictive or nonrestrictive, or, as they’re sometimes called, essential or nonessential. Borrowing from CMS again: “A relative cause is said to be restrictive if it provides information that is essential to the meaning of the sentence. . . . A relative clause is said to be nonrestrictive if it could be omitted without obscuring the identity of the noun to which it refers or otherwise changing the meaning of the rest of the sentence” (CMS 16, section 6.22).

Here’s a restrictive clause:

The novel that we’re reading this month can be found in the library.

And here’s a nonrestrictive one:

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which we’re reading for class, was published in 1985.

Here’s where the contentiousness comes in. Have you in your travels come across the “which/that distinction”? I don’t believe I was aware of it before I got my first editing job, in the publications office of a big nonprofit in Washington, D.C. My mentor was a crackerjack editor with decades of experience in New York publishing. Thanks to her I’ve been able to more or less support myself as an editor all these years. She was a stickler for correct usage, and as her apprentice I internalized most of her thou shalts and thou shalt nots.

High among the thou shalts was Thou shalt use only “that” for restrictive clauses and only “which” for nonrestrictive clauses, and “which” must be preceded by a comma.

This is the which/that distinction, and like many another novice editor I became a zealous enforcer of it. Worse, I became a tad smug about it. As I like to say, “everyone’s the hero of their own story,” and for copyeditors, whose brains are crammed with rules and guidelines, this sometimes leads to a conviction that it’s our esoteric knowledge that stands between us and the collapse of civilization, or at least the English language.

In other words, I looked down my snoot at any writer who used “which” for restrictive clauses.

Until I noticed, before too many years had passed, that writers of British English (BrE) regularly used “which” for restrictive clauses without their prose collapsing into a muddle.

And that speakers of American English (AmE) often don’t make the distinction in conversation.

Hmmm. By this point, the which/that distinction was so ingrained that I applied it without thinking in my own writing and in editing as well. This stands me in good stead in U.S. trade publishing, where which/that is still a thou shalt in many quarters.  Nearly all of the AmE writers whose work I edit apply it automatically, so I don’t have to change anything.

With BrE writers, at first I’d diligently change all the restrictive whiches to thats, but then I started getting uneasy. The which/that distinction is a convention, not a rule. I wasn’t improving the prose in any way by enforcing it. Most important, by diligently enforcing a distinction that didn’t need to be enforced, I was pretty sure I was missing more important stuff. Like many other editors and proofreaders I learned early on that the mistakes I missed usually came in close proximity to the ones I caught. It’s as if the editorial brain takes a self-congratulatory pause after each good catch, and in that moment an obvious error can slip through.

So I stopped automatically changing all those whiches to thats. I’d note on my style sheet “which OK for restrictive clauses” so the proofreader wouldn’t flip out and think the copyeditor was asleep at the keyboard. So far the language hasn’t collapsed and my publisher clients haven’t dumped me, but it still feels a little daring so I look over my shoulder a lot to see who’s watching.

Garner notes that the restrictive that is used “in polished American prose,” but that “in British English, writers and editors seldom observe the distinction between the two words.”

Says the usage note in Merriam-Webster’s:

Although some handbooks say otherwise, that and which are both regularly used to introduce restrictive clauses in edited prose. Which is also used to introduce nonrestrictive clauses. That was formerly used to introduce nonrestrictive clauses; such use is virtually nonexistent in present-day edited prose, though it may occasionally be found in poetry.

In its much lengthier usage noteAmerican Heritage comes round to more or less the same conclusion: “But this [restrictive] use of which with restrictive clauses is very common, even in edited prose.” The whole note is an excellent introduction to which/that and restrictive/nonrestrictive. Check it out.

Editing Workshop, 4

We interrupt the alphabet — in the A–Z Challenge you can take Sundays off — to bring you “Editing Workshop, 4” It’s been almost exactly two years since “Editing Workshop, 3,” and I’d love to do more of them.  This A–Z thing has reminded me that I’ve got a lot of free-floating stuff in my head but I need a hook to get hold of it and pull it out. Like a letter of the alphabet — or a query from a writer, editor, or reader. That’s what sparked this one. If you’ve got a question or an observation, use the contact form to send it along. I will get back to you.

This query about “post” came from someone who works in medical publishing:

I have been annoyed for the past few years by the increasingly trendy use of “post” instead of “since” or “after “: “Post the election, people have been wondering . . .” It is especially prevalent in my field, medical publishing — “The patient’s symptoms improved post surgery” — and I never allow it. Nor have I been able to discover whether it is considered even marginally correct by anyone anywhere. In any case, I think it is in dreadfully poor taste. Your thoughts?

This is the sort of usage question that editors discuss among ourselves all the time. What’s considered correct, informal, or acceptable varies from field to field, and my field is not medical publishing. But I’ll take a stab at it as a generalist and hope that some of my medical editor colleagues will weigh in in the comments, drop me an email, or use the contact form at the bottom of the page to respond.

I had an instant negative reaction to “post the election,” which is to say that my fingers itched to make it “after the election” or “since the election,” depending on the rest of the sentence. “Post” isn’t a preposition, thought I, but I’ve been wrong before so I consulted the dictionary — three dictionaries: American Heritage, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate, and Oxford (UK), all online. None of them listed “post” as a preposition. This usage may catch on and become standard, but it hasn’t yet, and because “after” and “since” serve the same purpose so well, I’d go ahead and change it.

“The patient’s symptoms improved post surgery” is something else again. “Post surgery” isn’t the same as “post the surgery.” Here I think “post” is a preposition. This would be clearer if it were either fused with “surgery” or attached to it with a hyphen: “postsurgery” or “post-surgery.” I’d go with the latter because I like hyphens a lot better than Merriam-Webster’s does. On the Copyediting-L email list, HARP stands for Hyphens Are a Reader’s Pal, and I’ve been a HARPy since I knew there was such a thing.

“Post-”prefixed words can certainly be adjectives — “post-election party” and “post-surgery protocol” both sound unexceptional to me — but offhand I couldn’t think of many “post-”prefixed adverbs, which is what I think it is in “The patient’s symptoms improved post-surgery.”

“My mental state deteriorated post-election” strikes me as grammatical enough (it’s also true), but it doesn’t sound idiomatic to my ear: I’d probably say or write “My mental state deteriorated after the election” or “The patient’s symptoms improved after surgery.” However, in a document where brevity is desired and expected by the intended readers, the adverbial “post-election” or “post-surgery” might be fine.

So what do you think, both you generalists and especially you who work in the medical field? Is it OK or not OK or OK under certain conditions?

Two comments:

Linda Kerby: “I agree with your comments. If it is used as an adjectival phrase like ‘post-operative improvement was without incident’, then yes. But the other use is awkward. I do not see much use of that, thank goodness.”

Louise Harnby: “Great post (couldn’t resist it!). In fact, Oxford Dictionaries does support the use of post as a preposition, but you have to scroll waaaay down the page to the fourth definition! https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/post#post_Preposition_800. They even give an example that includes ‘the’. I agree with your enquirer that this sounds a little sticky, so it may well depend on the context (I’m not a medical editor either) and readership, but there is dictionary support for the prepositional form!”