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An English Teacher's Glossary - Parallelism

One way writers give coherence to very long sentences (or paragraphs) is the use of parallelism, a rhetorical device much used in the Bible because of the parallel nature of Hebrew poetry, where a statement is made and then is repeated in a changed form, thus creating a balance: “There the wicked cease from troubling; and there the weary be at rest.” Incidentally there is an amusing example in the Bible of a New Testament misreading of Old Testament parallelism. The prophet Zechariah describes the king entering Jerusalem as “humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey”. The donkey and the colt are the same beast but Matthew misreads this, and he has the disciples bring two animals to Jesus, which he rides at the same time: “Look your king is approaching, humble and riding on a donkey, and on a colt”.


The two main kinds of parallelism are the balanced

 sentence and the antithetical sentence. Here is a balanced sentence from Jane Austen’s novel Emma: “The real evils, indeed, of Emma’s situation were the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself.” Can you see that “rather too much” is balanced by “a little too well”? And here is an antithetical sentence from the same novel: “A single woman with a very narrow income must be a ridiculous, disagreeable old maid, the proper sport of boys and girls; but a single woman of good fortune is always respectable, and may be as sensible and pleasant as anybody else.” Here “very narrow income” contrasts with (is antithetical to) “good fortune”. 


The balanced sentence is often controlled by the conjunction “and”, while the antithetical sentence is often controlled by the conjunction “but”.

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