Watch those series

Although this blog has “grammar” in its title, matters of usage and style concern us too. Today’s post is about style. A colleague pointed out this funny series of phrases in an Associated Press story Friday:

Immigrant groups sued, saying the laws usurp the federal government’s exclusive power to regulate immigration, deprive residents of their constitutional rights to equal protection, and violate state and federal housing law.

This sentence’s structure makes it sound as if the federal government has the exclusive power to regulate, deprive and violate. In fact, the series of verbs begins with usurp and applies to the subject laws. The laws deprive and violate. The structure plays a trick on us readers. When we read the infinitive to regulate, we expect the verbs that follow to be parallel: to regulate, to deprive, to violate.

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One way to fix this is to break up the series.

Immigrant groups sued, saying that the laws usurp the federal government’s exclusive power to regulate immigration and that the laws deprive residents of their constitutional rights to equal protection and violate state and federal housing law.

Of course, you probably have another suggestion for how to edit the sentence. Care to post it in the comments?

In researching this post I came across a definition of parallelism from the Columbia Guide to Standard American English: Parallelism is a stylistic arrangement in which similar syntactic patterns repeat, thus allowing reader or listener to rely on the grammatical repetition to echo the logical similarity of the thought and thus improving the clarity and efficiency of the passage.

Here is good nuts-and-bolts explanation of parallelism from Towson University Online Writing Support. The Guide to Grammar and Writing has examples of faulty parallelism and offers remedies.

This article was originally posted by the Raleigh News & Observer, a subsidiary of The McClatchy Co.; is posted here to provide continuity; and is copyright © 2011 The News & Observer Publishing Company, which reserves the right to remove this post.