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  • Jennifer Rubio

Pick your parallel path (or: Don't diagram sentences, but do diagram series)

I'm not a huge fan of diagramming sentences. I think so much of how we put sentences together is innate, and it doesn't really serve much of a purpose to put "The" in a little tail before the subject, or noting via a diagonal that your adjective modifies your noun. But there is some merit to understanding the chunks of your sentence and how they fit together. And the lack of understanding that I sometimes see is never plainer than when it has to do with series sentences. Series sentences are just lists of stuff, divided out with commas. I talked about them a little in this blog. They're used a lot, and I think if we got in the habit of diagramming them, we'd see a lot fewer mistakes and a lot less confusion.

How do I diagram a series?

Basically, your series sentence diagram should look like this:

Now, when I say "series item 2, 3, 4, etc.," all of those ought to be on their own separate lines, as with this example using 4 items:

Got it? Here's an example of an actual sentence using four items in a series. I ate steak, potatoes, broccoli, and ice cream for dinner. Diagram it out and here's what we get:

Now here's how you tell whether your sentence is any good: You should be able to follow ANY HORIZONTAL PATH along the course of this diagram and create a good sentence. Here's one path:

I ate steak for dinner. That's a good sentence.

Here's another:

I ate potatoes for dinner. Another good sentence.

Continue on, and you'll see that all four of these paths work just fine. This is a good, parallel series.

That sounds simple enough.

Well. Yeah. Because this is a simple sentence. It's when what goes in those green boxes gets long that you start to trip up a bit. Take, for example, the following sentence, which actually appeared in some copy I edited several months back: Marketing can bring traffic to your website, connect you with important people, help you land more clients, and make more money. See the problem yet? Let's try to diagram it out:

Now let's put it to the test by following all possible horizontal paths:

Marketing can bring traffic to your website. Great. Marketing can connect you with important people. Super. Marketing can help you land more clients. A++.

Uh-oh. Marketing can make more money. Well, technically it's a good sentence, but it's not what this sentence is trying to say, is it? To fix this, you gotta make sure that EVERY PATH is saying what it should. So let's add some language to make it work:

Put it all together and it looks like this: Marketing can bring traffic to your website, connect you with important people, help you land more clients, and help you make more money. THAT's a parallel sentence. Another way to fix it is to combine those two items into one:

Now you have: Marketing can bring traffic to your website, connect you with important people, and help you land more clients and make more money.

Test yourself!

Now that you see how easy it is to diagram and solve parallel problems, what would you do with the following real sentences found in the wild?

  • Some people need to follow a special diet to lose weight, manage diabetes, control blood pressure, and many other health issues.

  • Show up, introduce yourself, make connections, let others know what you do, and referrals will follow.

  • It's key to the country context, regional, and global strategies and thinking.

Let me know in the comments!

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