Normally I don’t leave snowy Minnesota in the heart of Nordic ski racing season, but this year I made an exception and went to Key West. It was hard, but I made the best of it.
On Mallory Square we cheered the green flash along with thousands of fellow tourists as the sun dipped beneath the horizon. We watched a squadron of pelicans glide just above the shadowy water in perfect formation. Then we joined a crowd of people gathered around a bare-chested busker with a scruffy black beard. He asked for three volunteers, who said their names were Pauline, Martha and Ernest.
Standing behind Pauline, the busker pulled a card from her ear and waved it in the air. He did the same with Martha. But when he stood behind Ernest, a broad-shouldered man with an open shirt and a hairy chest, he screeched and out of nowhere a white rat appeared on the man’s shoulder.
The crowd gasped.
“You can’t do that,” I said.
“He’s right,” said Ernest, who nudged Martha. “Tell him why.”
“You must complete a series the way you began it,” Martha said in a deep voice. “It’s called parallel structure. If you begin with two cards, you must finish with a third card.”
“Such wisdom!” shouted the busker, raising his eyebrows in mock amazement. “And tell us, does the sun set at night?”
“It does,” said Ernest, “and the sun also rises. If you break parallel structure, you jar your reader. For example, it should be ‘The bullfighter was healthy, wealthy and brave,’ not ‘The bullfighter was healthy, wealthy and he was brave.’ ”
“Oh, please, tell us more,” shouted the busker as he strutted around the three volunteers.
“Maintain parallel structure for consistency, clarity and emphasis,” said Martha. Take particular care, she said, with the following structures:
1. Words in a series, as in “He was fast, strong and graceful on skis,” not “He was fast, strong and a graceful skier.”
2. Vertical lists (whether numbered or bulleted, including headings in a series and entries in tables), as with the numbered items in this vertical list, not ‘1. Words in a series, 2. Vertical lists and 3. Be careful with correlative expressions.’ ”
3. Correlative expressions, or words that come in pairs, such as either/or and not only/but also, as in “Either you improve your technique, or you slow down as you get older,” not “You either improve your technique, or you slow down as you get older.”
The busker stopped behind Ernest. Pulling a card from the hairy-chested man’s ear, he said, “So it’s ‘a farewell to evil, war and arms,’ ” and pulling a white rabbit from the man’s other ear, he said, “Not ‘a farewell to evil, war and don’t forget arms.’ ”
“That’s right,” I said. “And remember, ‘The bell tolls not only for you, but also for me,’ not ‘The bell not only tolls for you, but also for me.’ ”
“Say,” said the busker, “aren’t you missing some good ski races back home?”
Stephen Wilbers offers training seminars in effective business writing. E-mail him at email@example.com. His website is www.wilbers.com.