Living in a parallel world
This blog is called “Beyond the Oxford Comma.” I call it that because I’m not going to waste time arguing one side or the other of this ridiculous debate that, in the end, is a style choice. There’s so much else we could make memes out of that are infinitely more important to clear and eloquent writing.
Let’s start with one of the basics: parallel structure. When making lists or series in text, it’s important that every piece of the list or series “match”:
CORRECT: The flag is red, white, and blue.
INCORRECT: The flag is red, white, and has blue polka dots.
This probably pings your radar as wrong immediately. But why exactly is it wrong? Let’s break down the sentence and find out.
Here’s the basic structure of our correct sentence. As you can see, our elements are separated out into parallel lines. The idea is that you can read any permutation of these three columns and it makes sense.
Three parallel sentences, put together as one.
But what happens when we plug in our incorrect sentence?
We separate that out –
- and we get the rather awful phrase “The flag is has blue polka dots.” You wouldn’t write that sentence on its own. So why would you write it as part of a series?
“But so what? That’s a no-brainer. Who’s gonna write a lousy sentence like that?” Well, you’d be surprised. I recently had a client give me a sentence along the lines of:
The company provided training, technical assistance, and engaged stakeholders in the pilot program.
If you game this out similarly, you get the decidedly ugly “The company provided engaged stakeholders.” And yet there it was, in the document, proof that bad sentences really do happen to good people.
But let’s get down to the important part. How do you fix it?
There’s two ways. One is to adjust the series so the three items are parallel again:
The flag is red, is white, and has blue polka dots.
That’ll work in some sentences. But here’s it’s a little awkward. We wouldn’t say “the flag is red” and then “the flag is white,” right? We’re more likely to say the flag is “red and white.” So another way to fix it is to create a different structure entirely:
The flag is red and white and has blue polka dots.
"But my third-grade teacher told me not to use 'and' twice in a sentence." Your third-grade teacher was warning you against a run-on sentence (The flag is red and white and blue) and trying to teach you how to construct a proper series. This use of the double "and" is perfectly okay here, because you're not using "and" where you should instead use a comma.
(Now, there’s a separate issue about the temptation to put in a comma before that second “and,” but maybe I’ll get to that in another blog post in the future.)
When you start to add sub-details to the series elements, making the dinosaur really hairy, it becomes harder and harder to notice these major problems with sentence structure. Just because you don’t notice it, however, doesn’t mean the reader won’t. It will trip your reader up, even if he or she doesn’t understand why.
Another reason why a good copy editor can be your best friend.