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A Word, Please: Finding fault with faulty parallels

November 18, 2011

When “Rain Man” was in the theaters, Billy Ocean was rocking the pop charts, Bartles & Jaymes wine coolers were appalling oenophiles far and wide, and I was a college senior eagerly looking forward to the standard-issue six-figure job and company BMW I was sure to receive upon graduation.

My interest in the English language was buried under a heap of career confusion typical of college graduates who weren’t raised by college graduates (or even around any, for that matter). And the “whoever dies with the most toys wins” mentality of the 1980s wasn’t helping.

But when I look back, I can see that an untapped interest in language was right under my nose — right up on the big screen. A single moment in the 1988 blockbuster delighted me to no end, hinting at an underlying passion for grammar.

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In the movie, Dustin Hoffman played Raymond, who was the savant brother of Tom Cruise’s character, Charlie, who was a world-class jerk. Raymond documented Charlie’s atrocities on his “serious injury list,” including an incident in which Charlie “yelled and pulled and hurt my neck.”

More than 20 years later I still find the line delightful, and the reason lies in its grammar. “Yelled and pulled and hurt my neck” contains a downright precious example of the error called a faulty parallel.

Look at the sentence, “I went to the beach, the park and the mall.” In it, the speaker is attaching three different locations to a single action.

He’s saying “I went to the beach, I went to the park, and I went to the mall.” But for brevity’s sake, he’s cutting out two instances of the verb, forcing all three locations to share a single verb.

This is called parallel construction, or parallelism, and in this example it’s working just fine. But what if it were worded like this: “I went to the beach, the park and to the mall”? Well, then you would have a breakdown in the system — a faulty parallel.

In parallel construction, multiple words, phrases or clauses all attach to a sentence the same way. In our first beach sentence, the shared element was “I went to,” and the three items that followed all fit.

But when we add “to” before “the mall,” the whole system breaks down, giving us the logical equivalent of “I went to the beach, I went to the park, and I went to to the mall.”

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