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Parallelism / Parallel Structure

Parallelism, also known as parallel structure, occurs when the writer uses the same structure in multiple lines.

A parallel structure can also help imbue a piece with pattern and rhythm, depending on how it’s used. It uses repetition and the same grammatical structure between lines of a short story, novel, poem, or play. As long as some elements of multiple lines are repeated, then it is usually a solid example of parallelism. The lines do not have to have the same meaning. 

Parallelism pronunciation: pair-uh-lel-ee-sum

Parallelism - definition and examples


Definition of Parallel Structure

Parallelism is a common literary device that writers can use in their creations. It could be used in a play, poem, novel, or short story. There are many possible ways that parallel structures can be applied. For example, a writer might use the same structure to compare two different, juxtaposing ideas and emphasize that contrast. While parallelism sounds complicated, there are many common examples in everyday speech and conversations. Some of those are listed below, but there are many more one might stumble upon when going about one’s life.

Parallelism is especially powerful when it’s used in poetry. It can create interesting examples of repetition, rhythm, and rhyme. 


Examples of Parallelism in Literature 

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

A Tale of Two Cities has some of the most famous opening lines of all time. They also happen to be an example of parallelism, specifically antithesis. Here is an excerpt from the novel that demonstrates, in several different ways, how the device might be used. 

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.

When looking over this passage, it’s clear that Dickens was using the same line structure, “It was the…” over and again. He also creates several compelling contrasts with “best” and “worst,” “Light” and “darkness,” and so on. 

Discover poetry from Charles Dickens.


I Have a Dream speech by Martin Luther King Jr.

In this famous and moving speech, there is a clear use of parallelism. “I have a dream that one day” is used at the beginning of each passage. 

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

This example of parallelism is a great way to show how the same structure can be used for emphasis. In this case, the lines do not contrast one another. They complement one another. The second builds on the first’s vision. 


love is more thicker than forget by E.E. Cummings 

In this classic E.E. Cummings poem, the poet uses several examples of parallelism. The poem is a great example of how Cummings used language and grammar in a way that it had never been before. Consider these lines from the piece: 

love is more thicker than forget

more thinner than recall

more seldom than a wave is wet

more frequent than to fail

He goes on to use “love is” again and repeats the word “less” at the beginning of three lines. 

Read more E.E. Cummings poems.


The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien 

O’Brien’s most famous novel features a well-known quote in which readers can find an example of parallelism. It reads: 

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

The two contrasting statements, “Almost everything is true” and “Almost nothing is true,” are used to emphasize the absurdity of war and how impossible it is to define. Whether one generalizes about war or peace, everything ends up the same way with the same outcome. 


Parallelism and Antithesis

An antithesis is a form of parallelism. It occurs when two contrasting ideas are put together to achieve the desired outcome. The two opposites are accompanied by a parallel structure and help unite the two phrases. For antithesis to occur, there has to be a contrast (such as in The Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens). Parallelism, on the other hand, can occur without contrast. 


Parallelism and Oxymoron

An oxymoron occurs when two words that contradict one another are placed together in order to reveal a deeper truth. For example, “sweet sorrow” or “living dead.” These are stand-alone statements in which two words that don’t seem to belong together are placed next to one another and then make sense. In contrast, parallelism doesn’t put two contrasting words right next to one another. Rather, it depends on similar structures to create a contrast. 


Related Literary Terms 

  • Antithesis: occurs when two contrasting ideas are put together to achieve the desired outcome.
  • Epizeuxis: is a figure of speech that occurs when the writer repeats a word or phrase in immediate succession.
  • Anadiplosis: refers to the repetition of words so that the second clause starts with the same word/s that appeared in the previous.
  • Diacope: a literary term that refers to the repetition of a word or phrase.
  • Repetition: an important literary technique that sees a writer reuse words or phrases multiple times.
  • Anecdote: short stories used in everyday conversation in order to inspire, amuse, caution, and more.


Other Resources 

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