Straight Lines of Thought

In the 1980s, an architectural style called deconstructivism appeared, a movement that questioned the necessity of long-standing assumptions of what a building should look like—assumptions as fundamental as vertical lines and right angles—and produced structures that catch one’s attention and dizzy one’s vision. The Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas, designed by architect Frank Gehry, is a dramatic, if not ironic, example.

One construction principle deconstructivism seems largely to eschew is parallelism, the felt need to arrange elements in such a way that they do not intersect in the same plane. A building constructed along deconstructivist lines pays less attention to the traditional or even functional arrangement of its parts in order to drop what it sees as the pretense of order and steadiness veneering reality. Elements in parallel, by contrast, do not conflict, and the result is an emotional environment that allows ideas to arise and pass easily across our attention.

There is a close analogy to be seen between the work of an architect in concrete and steel and the work of a writer in word, phrase, and clause. Writers of expository prose, the explanatory form of language most of us write most of the time, are under an obligation to build sentences that do not obstruct the flow of meaning; it is an obligation we impose on one another because when we write or speak, we are implicitly claiming the time and attention of someone else, things of propriety and value rightly to be left unabused. The elements of word, phrase, and clause represent linguistic forms, just as the lines, planes, and angles represent architectural forms; both carry ideas and meaning, and the traditional assumption for expository writing is that its work is to clarify, meaning literally to make clear. By being clear we help one another to understand.

Parallelism, then, is concerned with the unobstructed flow of ideas, and in explanatory writing it is marked by the identicalness of grammatical elements. In the sentence My new apartment is bright, sunny, and transportation is just around the corner, three elements comprise the predicate, but only the first two, bright and sunny, are adjectives each in the form of a single word; the third element, transportation is just around the corner, is a clause, disrupting the parallelism that was beginning to be established by the similarity of the first two elements. It is this linguistic disruption that censures the sentence: the first two single-word adjectives merely point to qualities of the new apartment, but the clause asserts a thought about it; this moves the reader to a higher plane of discourse too abruptly, and the unnecessarily quick ascent disturbs the reader’s steady, receptive attention to simple descriptions. Replace the clause with another single adjective, and we clear the turbulence: My new apartment is bright, sunny, and airy. We are then free and clear to say something about its being close to transportation in a new sentence.

It is true, of course, that an almost religious devotion to parallelism will produce a static unrealism; the energy of life arises from conflict (the word means a striking together), and whether we conceive of that as simple momentary discord or outright continuing strife, parallelism must give way at times to inconsistency. But because we think as we write, and because thinking involves discovery often only after confusion, we are warranted in keeping close watch on parallel structure as we compose our sentences. When things come to order, we have reason to trust them, because order points to some degree of internal consistency. We may eventually learn that the order we perceive supports a conclusion we do not agree with, but then our rejection will be based on reason, not reaction. Our thinking takes shape in our language, and the better we understand the structure of our sentences, the better we can understand what we and others are thinking about the world we share.


Leave a comment

Join the Discussion