June 24th, 2011

Wicked Writing Wrongs #5: Inconsistency

Have you ever seen a bullet list of, say, favorite hobbies, that looks something like this:

  • Going to movies
  • I like to read music books
  • With friends I play online games

Most often when you see this problem, it’s not as a bullet list, but a list within a sentence:

My favorite hobbies are going to movies, I like to read comic books, and with friends I play online games.

The problem is one of parallelism, also known as consistency.

When you have a list of things, make sure they all look alike, all use verbs in the same tense, and all are phrased similarly.  Just like this list:

  • All look alike
  • All use verbs in the same tense
  • All are phrased similarly.

So how would we fix up that list of hobbies?  Easy.  Put them all into similar structures.  Even better, it doesn’t really matter which structure you choose as long as all are the same:

  • Going to movies
  • Reading comic books
  • Playing online games with my friends

And when you revise the original sentence, it looks like this:

My favorite hobbies are going to movies, reading comic books, and playing online games with my friends.

By the way, unless you’re writing for a newspaper (which has its own weird set of rules) make sure you add that comma before “and” in the sentence. That’s a “serial comma” and when you leave it out, it can make lists ambiguous.  So in lists of 3 or more, include the comma before “and.”

A little consistency means a lot.


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