Writing for Business

Apr 9 2014   6:05PM GMT

Parallel construction, serial commas and false series

Ivy Wigmore Ivy Wigmore Profile: Ivy Wigmore


Which is correct?

interrobang For creating a worm that wreaked havoc across the Internet, Robert Morris was sentenced to ___________________. 

a. three years’ probation, 400 hours of community service and fined $10,000.
b. three years’ probation and 400 hours of community service and fined $10,000.

Answer: b.


Robert Morris’ claim to fame is the Robert Morris worm.

It’s easy to be fooled into thinking we’re looking at a series of three things that he was sentenced to, but if we spell it out, he was:

1. Sentenced to three years probation

2. Sentenced to 400 hours of community service

3. Fined $10,000

If it were a real series of three, we could say he was sentenced to “three years probation, 400 hours community service and fifty lashes with a USB cable.”

But because the 10 grand is not one of the series of things he was sentenced to, we need to clarify. To do that, we can use an “and” to link the things Morris was sentenced to and add another one to include the fact that he was also fined $10,000.

On Grammar Girl, Rob Reinalda (@word_czar) explains the false series:

A common problem in writing today is the false series. It happens when a writer combines three or more seemingly related elements in a series, but the syntax is wrong. When you get the sentence right, you’re said to be using parallel construction.


OK, here’s an example: “Today I will tidy up the bedroom, the living room, and wallpaper the cat.”

Read on for more explanation

twitter bird  Follow me on Twitter @tao_of_grammar

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