Definition of Parallelism

Parallelism is the repetition of grammatical elements in writing and speaking. Parallelism influences the grammatical structure of sentences but can also impact the meaning of thoughts and ideas being presented. When writers utilize parallelism as a figure of speech, this literary device extends beyond just a technique of grammatical sentence structure. It may feature repetition of a word or phrase for emphasis, or it can be used as a literary device to create a parallel position between opposite ideas through grammatical elements as a means of emphasizing contrast.

Parallelism takes many forms in literature, such as anaphora, antithesis, asyndeton, epistrophe, etc. Parallelism is a literary device in itself, but it is also a category under which other figures of speech fall, such as those mentioned previously. Therefore, these other literary devices and figures of speech are specific types of parallelism.

One of the most well-known examples of parallelism is featured in Neil Armstrong’s statement, made as he stepped on the moon: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” The structure of the two noun phrases in this sentence is similar due to the repeated use of “one.” This engages the audience’s attention and emphasizes the contrast between “small step for man” and “giant leap for mankind.” The significance of the event and meaning of Armstrong’s statement is enhanced through his use of parallelism.

Common Examples of Parallelism

Many common phrases feature parallelism through repetition of words, structure, or other grammatical elements. This calls attention to the wording and can emphasize the phrase’s meaning. Here are some common examples of parallelism:

  • he that will cheat at play, will cheat you any way
  • stupid is as stupid does
  • cousins by chance; friends by choice
  • luck is the idol of the idle
  • no pain, no gain
  • in for a penny, in for a pound
  • you get what you get
  • where there is smoke, there is fire
  • when the going gets tough, the tough get going
  • it takes one to know one
  • have money in your head, not in your heart
  • I think, therefore I am
  • don’t marry someone you can life with; marry someone you can’t live without
  • today a reader, tomorrow a leader
  • fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me

Examples of Parallelism in the Bible

Parallelism is found throughout the Bible, particularly in psalm verses and proverbs. One use of this literary device in Biblical poetry and phrasing is to create synonymous lines in which an idea is presented and then repeated by being rephrased with parallelism to reinforce or emphasize the meaning. Here are some examples of parallelism in the Bible:

  • In the way of righteousness is life / And in its pathway there is no death (Prov. 12:28)
  • i am the rose of Sharon / And the lily of the valleys (Song 2:1)
  • As the deer pants for the water brooks / So pants my soul for You, O God (Ps. 42:1)
  • Hatred stirs up strife / But love covers all sins (Prov. 10:12)
  • For the Lord knows the way of the righteous / But the way of the ungodly shall perish (Ps, 1:6)
  • The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it / the world, and all who live in it (Ps. 24)

Famous Examples of Parallelism

Parallelism is also found in many famous examples of poetry, prose, drama, speeches, and quotations to create an intentional effect for the reader. Here are some famous examples of parallelism:

  • Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced. (James Baldwin)
  • Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof / Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth (lyrics by Pharrell Williams)
  • … and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth. (Abraham Lincoln)
  • Then practice losing farther, losing faster: places, and names, and where it was you meant to travel. None of these will bring disaster. (Elizabeth Bishop)
  • It is easier for a father to have children than for children to have a real father. (Pope John XXIII)
  • Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind. (Bernard M. Baruch)
  • You deserve to need me, not to have me. (Augusten Burroughs)
  • Follow love and it will flee; flee love and it will follow. (proverb)
  • To err is human, to forgive, divine. (Alexander Pope)
  • But the sad truth is that the truth is sad, and that what you want does not matter. (Lemony Snicket)

Difference Between Parallelism and Repetition

It can be difficult to distinguish between parallelism and repetition. They are similar literary devices in the sense that their function is based on something being repeated for effect. However, repetition specifically features the intentional use of a word or phrase, two or more times in close proximity of each other. Parallelism can involve the repetition of words or phrases, but it also must reflect repetition of grammatical and/or structural elements. In fact, the only requirement for parallelism as a literary device is the repetition of grammatical elements and/or structure in a written work–apart from strictly word or phrase repetition.

A good example to demonstrate the difference between parallelism and repetition is a soliloquy spoken by the title character in Macbeth by William Shakespeare. The line, “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” features word repetition. It also features parallelism due to the grammatical structure of the phrasing, utilizing “and” as a conjunction. This grammatical similarity enhances the rhythm of the phrase and emphasizes the concept and meaning of “tomorrow” as an ongoing, repeating aggregate of time and experience.

There is another line in Macbeth’s soliloquy that features repetition, but not parallelism: “Out, out, brief candle!” In this line, the word “out” is repeated twice, but there is no indication of a repeating grammatical element. Though the effect of this repetition is to emphasize the word “out” in terms of extinguishing the candle, which represents death, there is less of a poetic nature to the line than the repetition and parallelism of the “tomorrow” phrase. Therefore, as literary devices, repetition emphasizes a word or phrase and can certainly reinforce its meaning; however, parallelism often adds even deeper meaning through repetition of grammatical structure.

Writing Parallelism

Overall, as a literary device, parallelism functions as a means of creating a harmonious flow and rhythm with words and phrases. This is effective for readers in that parallelism can capture a reader’s attention and enhance the structure of writing to make the literary work more meaningful. Parallelism is also an effective way for writers to set up relationships between two or more things or ideas, through comparison or contrast.

It’s important that writers use parallelism sparingly in order for it to be effective. Too much repetition of grammatical elements can distract and/or fatigue a reader. For example, this well-known proverb features parallelism: Give a man a fish, and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he eats for a life time. It’s effective in that the repetition of sentence structure emphasizes the meaning and perceived truth of the proverb for the reader. However, if the proverb were to continue this repetitive structure, it would lose effectiveness: Give a man a fish, and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he eats for a life time. Teach a man to sell fish, and he eats steaks. Give a man a chain of seafood restaurants, and he eats whatever he wants. The continued parallelism undermines the initial meaning of the proverb.

Here are some ways that writers benefit from incorporating parallelism into their work:

Create Sense of Rhythm

Writers can create a sense of rhythm in their works with parallelism. Repeating grammatical elements such as words, sounds, noun or verb phrases, helps to pace writing for the reader. This adds to the artistic and/or poetic value of language in a literary work, while allowing the writer to reinforce or elaborate on a particular idea.

Create Sense of Relationship

Parallelism allows writers to create a sense of relationship between words, phrases, and sentences, which then establishes relationships between things and ideas. This can be done through comparison or contrast, either within a single sentence or a group of sentences. By repeating grammatical elements, writers can draw the reader’s focus towards similarities and differences in expression and therefore enhance meaning.

 Examples of Parallelism in Literature

Parallelism is an effective literary device when used properly. Here are some examples of parallelism and how it adds to the significance of well-known literary works:

Example 1: Pygmalion (George Bernard Shaw)

If you can’t appreciate what you’ve got, you’d better get what you can appreciate.

In this line from his famous play, Shaw utilizes parallelism to set forth a contrast of ideas by inverting the wording of the phrases but maintaining their grammatical structure. The effect for the reader/audience due to parallelism as a literary device in this line is the connection between what someone has and what they appreciate. Professor Higgins, the speaker of the line, is calling Eliza’s attention to the choice she is facing: she can either appreciate what she has in him as a companion, or she can pursue someone else.

This choice between contrasting ideas in this line is underscored by Shaw’s use of parallelism in the expression of it. This adds meaning to the situation Eliza is facing in the play, but also calls upon the reader/audience to consider the choice they would make in her stead. In addition, the reader/audience is also confronted with the potential contrast between appreciating what they have or pursuing what they would appreciate.

Example 2: The Things They Carried (Tim O’Brien)

To generalize about war is like generalizing about peace. Almost everything is true. Almost nothing is true.

In O’Brien’s story about soldiers in Vietnam, he uses parallelism to create a relationship between war and peace, though they seem to be opposing concepts. In this passage, O’Brien warns against generalizing about either war or peace as the outcome ends up the same–that almost everything is true and almost nothing is true. The repetition of grammatical structure in these three sentences enhances the relationship between war and peace by creating the sense that, in general, they are more alike than opposite. This causes the reader to reflect on how this relationship between war and peace is possible.

O’Brien’s use of parallelism in this passage also creates a relationship between words and their meanings. When spoken in generalities, words such as war and peace lose their meanings. With this loss of meaning, the truth is lost as well. This parallel relationship between the meaning of words and the truth indicates to the reader that there is no meaning or truth to generalities when it comes to war or peace.

Example 3: How Cruel Is the Story of Eve (Stevie Smith)

Put up to barter,
The tender feelings
Buy her a husband to rule her
Fool her to marry a master
She must or rue it
The Lord said it.

In her poem, Smith utilizes parallelism to create a sharp sense of rhythm to instill empathy in the reader for Eve and her story. The grammatical structure of the poetic lines creates the sense of a list being presented to the reader of Eve’s judgments and punishments. The parallel pacing of the stanza’s structure, in addition to the connotations and repetitive sounds of the words (“rule,” “fool,” “rue”), create a rhythm that is almost like a whip. This expands and reinforces the theme for the reader that Eve is a victim of her story and her fate as a woman.