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Note to entrepreneurs: ‘educator’ and ‘community’ are not parallel

Parallelism is one of those delicious concepts that help to mark professional writers from amateurs. It’s a writing tool that professional writers notice and hunt for, but which readers rarely see. It’s part of the invisibility of good writing.

An editor can improve parallelism and receive almost instant praise from a client: ‘I don’t know what you did, but it reads so much better now’; ‘That’s exactly what I wanted to say, but you’ve worked your magic on it!’

Parallelism is about making sure that words take on the same grammatical form if they are fulfilling the same type of function. It applies to headings, bullet points, lists within sentences, and collections of sentences. Here’s a simple illustration: ‘planning, meeting, and negotiating’ is a parallel list;  ‘plan, have meetings, and negotiation’ is not. 

Parallelism is a simple idea, but it’s not always easy to get right.

I’ve been reading today about an organisation called ‘The Entourage’. Its tag line is ‘Australia’s largest educator and community of entrepreneurs’. 

The tagline makes sense in content terms (if you assume that they’re not trying to claim to be Australia’s largest educator): this is an organisation that provides education and support for entrepreneurs and wants to develop a community of practice (they’d use the term ‘buzz’). Sounds terrific.  

But the tagline doesn’t make good grammatical sense and the best explanation is its lack of parallelism. 

Here’s the tagline written in full, with all the collapsed concepts added back in: Australia’s largest educator of entrepreneurs and Australia’s largest community of entrepreneurs.

The full tagline works fine: the ‘and’ coordinates the two parts perfectly. But writers like to remove repetition and collapse concepts for easy reading. That’s how we end up with lists. But collapsing this sentence doesn’t quite work – mostly because ‘educator’ and ‘community’ are not fully parallel.

Both ‘educator’ and ‘community’ are nouns, so it’s not their grammatical form that creates the problem. The problem comes with meaning. An educator is a person or organisation giving instruction about a subject. A community is, in this case, a group of people who share attitudes and interests on the topic of entrepreneurship. An educator is a single entity. A community is a collective. An educator offers services. A community forms around interests.

You can’t be simultaneously an educator and a community – in the same way that you can’t be a place and a group. I can comfortably say ‘I am an educator’ but I can’t equally say ‘I am a community’. I can comfortably say ‘I’m part of a community’ but not ‘I’m part of an educator’. The words ‘educator’ and ‘community’ work in different ways. It simply doesn’t make sense to coordinate them within a list.

For what it’s worth, here’s my solution for this tagline: choose either ‘supporting Australia’s entrepreneurs’ or ‘educating Australia’s entrepreneurs’. If the idea of ‘Australia’s largest’ is important then I’d drop ‘educator’: ‘Australia’s largest community of entrepreneurs’.

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