Definition of Parallelism

Parallelism is the usage of repeating words and forms to give pattern and rhythm to a passage in literature. Parallelism often either juxtaposes contrasting images or ideas so as to show their stark difference, or joins similar concepts to show their connection. Authors often create parallelism through the use of other literary devices, such as anaphora, epistrophe, antithesis, and asyndeton. Parallelism encompasses all these possibilities of repetition and contrast.

The definition of parallelism can also refer to a grammatical construct, which we use commonly in everyday speech, for example “She enjoys gardening and cooking” instead of “She enjoys gardening and to cook.” The grammatical parallelism in the former sentence is a matter of using two gerunds instead of the second sentence’s use of one gerund and one infinitive. Most English speakers thus use grammatical parallelism all the time without realizing it.

Common Examples of Parallelism

Parallelism is popular in proverbs and idioms, as the parallel structure makes the sayings easy to remember and more rhetorically powerful. Here are some examples of parallelism in English:

  • What you see is what you get.
  • If you can’t beat them, join them.
  • A penny saved is a penny earned.
  • Easy come, easy go.

There are many famous quotes that also show parallelism:

  • “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” —Dalai Lama
  • “Success is getting what you want. Happiness is wanting what you get.” —Dale Carnegie
  • “We make a living by what we get, we make a life by what we give.” —Winston Churchill
  • “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” —John F. Kennedy
  • “Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.” ― Bernard M. Baruch

Significance of Parallelism in Literature

Parallelism has been an important literary device for cultures of oral storytelling from around the world. Many different poetic traditions have examples of parallelism. Some languages from around the world use parallelism as the primary aesthetic construction for poetry, such as Nahuatl in Mexico, Navajo in the United States, Toda in India, and in parts of Indonesia, Finland, Turkey, and Mongolia. The term “parallelism” comes from an eighteenth-century scholar of Hebrew poetry, while the Russian literary theorist Roman Jakobson pioneered the study of parallelism in non-religious texts. Parallelism remains a popular technique in poetry, prose, and plays.

Examples of Parallelism in Literature

Example #1


This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England…

(Richard II by William Shakespeare)

In this famous monologue from William Shakespeare’s Richard II, the character John of Gaunt recites a list of England’s virtues. Each clause begins with “this” and then includes yet another image of just how perfect John of Gaunt seems to consider England to be. It is, to him, a “demi-paradise,” a “precious stone,” a “blessed plot,” and so forth. This parallelism is therefore also an example of anaphora. He ends the monologue, however, by contrasting all these paradisiacal images with the fact that England has now tarnished its beauty by setting out to conquer other nations. Thus there is parallelism in the entire passage that ends with the antithesis of England “bound in with shame, / With inky blots and rotten parchment bonds.”

Example #2

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…

(A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens)

The opening of A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens contains parallelism both in the anaphoric repetition of “it was” and the antithetical statements of “best of times” versus “worst of times,” “age of wisdom” versus “age of foolishness,” etcetera. The pattern set up in this paragraph is so striking that it is one of the most famous paragraphs in all of literature.

Example #3

I was a child and she was a child,
In this kingdom by the sea,
But we loved with a love that was more than love—
I and my Annabel Lee—
With a love that the wingèd seraphs of Heaven
Coveted her and me.

(“Annabel Lee” by Edgar Allen Poe)

Edgar Allen Poe used parallelism in many of his poems, including in this one, “Annabel Lee.” The first line of this stanza contains the epistrophic repetition of “was a child.” As parallelism, this serves to show that both the speaker and Annabel Lee were young when they first fell in love, but that their youth did not negate the depth of their love. Instead, as Poe writes, “we loved with a love that was more than love,” which is later paralleled by “with a love that the winged seraphs of Heaven….” The parallelism in this stanza creates rhythm and gives deeper meaning to the love that he and Annabel Lee shared.

Example #4

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

(The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien)

Tim O’Brien’s marvelous story collection The Things They Carried has numerous examples of parallelism. Most notably, perhaps, is the title story in which O’Brien lists off the different items soldiers in the Vietnam War carried. That example of parallelism creates drama in the inanimate that begin to tell their own story. This excerpt shows a brilliant usage of parallelism in just three short sentences. O’Brien contrasts war and peace, as well as the concepts of truth and illusion.

Example #5

From laden boughs, from hands,
from sweet fellowship in the bins,
comes nectar at the roadside, succulent
peaches we devour, dusty skin and all,
comes the familiar dust of summer, dust we eat.

O, to take what we love inside,
to carry within us an orchard, to eat
not only the skin, but the shade,
not only the sugar, but the days, to hold
the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into
the round jubilance of peach.

(“From Blossoms” by Li-Young Lee)

This lovely poem by Li-Young Lee, has many instances of repetition. There is parallelism in the first stanza of reciting where the peaches have come from: “From laden boughs, from hands, / from sweet fellowship in the bins.” The connection of these three images shows that the peaches are not just the work of nature, but also the work of humans picking them and providing them at roadside stands. Lee goes on to provide parallelism in the next stanza with the similarly structured lines “not only the skin, but the shade, / not only the sugar, but the days.” Again, he gives credit to all the elements that have formed these pieces of fruit.

Test Your Knowledge of Parallelism

1. Choose the correct parallelism definition:
A. Starting every sentence with the same word or group of words.
B. Juxtaposing contrasting images to show their difference.
C. Repeating words and/or forms to create a pattern.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #1″]
Answer: C is the best answer. A is the definition of anaphora and B is the definition of antithesis; while parallelism may involve either of these techniques, it is not limited solely to these possibilities.[/spoiler]

2. Which of the following Mongolian proverbs is a parallelism example?
A. You can’t put two saddles on the same horse.
B. It is easier to catch an escaped horse than to take back an escaped word.
C. Even foul water will put out a fire.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #2″]
Answer: B contains an example of parallelism.[/spoiler]

3. Which of the following excerpts from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” contains parallelism?


I CELEBRATE myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.


Leaving me baskets cover’d with white towels swelling the
house with their plenty,
Shall I postpone my acceptation and realization and scream
at my eyes,


Backward I see in my own days where I sweated through fog
with linguists and contenders,
I have no mockings or arguments, I witness and wait.

[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #3″]
Answer: A contains parallelism and thus is the correct answer.[/spoiler]