I was skimming through an Instant Pot product description (really no more than a glorified editorial advertisement), when my eyes stopped cold on the following sentence:
“The 10-in-1 multicooker can roast, stew, bake, steam, slow cook, sear/sauté, rice, yogurt, ferment, and warm food at the touch of a single button.”
Sure. I get the idea. I’m not completely cognitively impaired… That’s still a year or two away.
But the sentence construction is wrong in a way that I see all the time in webinar promotional materials and on presentation slides. Grammar wonks refer to it as a matter of “parallel construction” – Each compared item or idea in a sentence should follow the same grammatical pattern.
In the sentence above, “rice” and “yoghurt” are not verbs that apply to the subject “food” in the same way as the other action words in the list. I’ve never heard of a cook wanting to yoghurt her food, and “rice” is a real verb in cooking that has nothing to do with this machine’s capabilities. So including it in the list actually makes the sentence a lie rather than simply unwieldy.
In the presentation world, parallel construction mistakes most commonly show up in bullet point lists. For instance, a webinar description says:
Join this webinar to learn:
- How to improve outcomes by 25%
- Ways to boost employee productivity
- Up to 50% more efficient processes
- Staying ahead of your competition
The same thing happens on PowerPoint slides all the time, whether they include the actual bullet points or not:
Now, I’ll be the first to admit that none of these examples are fatal to your message. Your audience knows what you mean. But at some level, nonparallel lists “feel” wrong. For a brief moment, the reader stops thinking about WHAT you are saying and shifts to thinking about HOW you are saying it. And that lessens the effectiveness of your communications.
This is the same reason presentation coaches advise you to get rid of distracting filler words or repeated vocal inflection patterns in your speaking. It’s not that audiences can’t understand you… It’s a matter of making the “mechanics” or “technique” behind your communications unnoticeable so that 100% of your listener’s attention is focused on the point you are making.
Parallel list construction is an easy thing to look for. For each item in the list, throw away all the other items and read the sentence as a standalone phrase. As you read each one, does the sentence sound the same? Does it make sense? …
… Or are you trying to yoghurt your food?