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Using Parallel Construction In Technical Documents

By Author: Steve Davis
Total Articles: 38

The careful technical writer always uses parallel construction in paragraphs, lists, even sentences. For sentences that is just good grammar. So what is parallel construction?
Parallel Sentences
According to my oldest text book on technical writing, a sentence is parallel if its coordinate elements are expressed in the same grammatical form. By creating and sustaining a recognizable pattern for the reader, parallelism makes the sentence easier to follow.
The Global English Style Guide calls parallel structure 'using syntactic cues,' which is essentially saying the same thing as the previous paragraphs. However, by saying 'syntactic cues,' you can really see that the way something is written becomes part of the syntax, or pattern, of the document.
Here are some examples:
Nonparallel statements
Our present system is costing us profits and reduces our productivity. (nonparallel verbs)
The dignitaries watched the launch, and the crew was applauded. (nonparallel voice)
The typist should follow the printed directions; do not change the originator's work. (nonparallel mood)
Parallel statements
Our present system is costing us profits and reducing our productivity.
The dignitaries watched the launch and applauded the crew.
The typist should follow the printed directions and not change the originator's work.
That should give you some idea about parallel sentence structures. Now let's look at parallel lists.
Parallel Lists
Parallel structure in lists means that the list has a standard pattern throughout. The following incorrect example is pretty egregious but, you get the point.
Incorrect
Windows offers several ways to open documents:
You can open your document from within the program you used to create it.
Use the My Recent Documents command on the Start menu to open a document that you have used recently.
The Search command on the Start menu locates the document, and you can then open it.
Double-clicking a document icon in My Computer opens a document.
Correct
Windows offers several ways to open documents:
Open your document from within the program you used to create it.
Use the My Recent Documents command on the Start menu to open a document that you have used recently.
Use the Search command on the Start menu to locate the document and then open it.
Double-click a document icon in My Computer.
Notice that in each correct example, the sentences are imperative. Believe it or not, despite how you feel when it is your mother talking, readers prefer the imperative.
Parallelism in Paragraphs, Topics, and Documents
The best way to make your reader feel comfortable is to establish a pattern for all of the information. All of the paragraphs in the same section should have the same voice and mood. All of the topics should follow the same pattern. All the documents should have the same structure. This eliminates the drama from the writing but, let's face it, when you need information now, who needs drama?
For example, if your document has a chapter that starts with a heading, a brief introductory sentence, and a list of the information that is in the chapter. All chapters should have that structure. Otherwise, it is very obvious that you have multiple authors or a totally scatterbrained person writing your document. The bonus is that, once you establish a pattern, it is easier to write as well as read.
Additionally, once you have established a pattern, readers can pay attention to the information and not even notice the writing. Isn't that the goal of real technical writers? If it isn't, it certainly should be.

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