Parallelism and verbs

rogersgeorge on July 12th, 2011

I’ve written about parallelism in the past. The point is that parallel constructions have to have the same structure. However, here’s another subtlety about parallelism: When two or more verbs are parallel, they must all be the same type of verb. They can be linking verbs or action verbs, but not some of each.

I like to find mistakes in professionally written material to use for my bad examples. Maybe I like to gloat, or maybe I like to point out that mistakes happen to everyone. This is from page 215 of a fascinating book I just finished, The Day we Found the Universe by Marcia Bartusiak, an accomplished science writer. I recommend the book, by the way, if you’d like to find out why we named the Hubble telescope after Edwin Hubble. The book gave me several new astronomical heroes, though Hubble is not one of them. Well, maybe he’s in that pantheon, too, but he had feet of clay.

It’s somewhat surprising that more astronomers didn’t sense the celestial riches to be found in distant space, just ready for mining.

Because some words are deliberately left out to improve the flow, his is a tricky sentence. Maybe it’s a good example of how to break a rule and get away with it.

Just the same, I think you might find it useful to see the solecism. Do you see the parallel? I’ll supply the missing words. The parallel parts are “(…that are) to be found” and “ready for mining.” “Are to be found” is a linking verb phrase (also passive), but ‘ready for mining”  looks like an action verb. Its literal sense is that the riches out in deep space are ready to do some mining. So if “mining” in this context looks like an action verb, and “(are) to be found” is a linking verb phrase, we have a little disruption because they aren’t quite parallel.

I think the writer meant both to be passive, so the final phrase should be “just ready to be mined.” Now the metaphor is crystal clear.

The telescope Hubble used to prove that galaxies were stars, not gas.

A similar sentence on the next page gets the structure exactly right (This sentence refers to Harlow Shapley, Hubble’s colleague.):

He ignored conflicting data longer than he should have, which kept him from extending his work to the spiral nebulae and beating Hubble to the punch.

The parallel constructions are “extending his work” and “beating Hubble to the punch.” Nice and clean.

Next post: a grammar comic. Yes, Virginia, they exist.

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