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Parallelism is a literary technique where parts of a sentence are grammatically or structurally the same.  It could also include similarities in sound and rhythm.  Using parallelism is using repetition and balance in your writing to get across an idea.  A popular use of parallelism is called, antithesis, where opposite ideas are joined by the use of parallel structure.  For example, Alexander Pope uses antithesis when he writes, “To err is human; to forgive divine.”  Both sides of the sentence separated by a semi-colon are very similar in structure, sound, and rhythm.  Their meanings are also opposites.

You see the use of parallelism in speeches, especially.  The use of this technique emphasizes an idea or supports a structure that the speaker uses to make his point.  It balances the flow of ideas and is often used as a way to persuade the audience.  This example in I Have a Dream by Martin Luther King uses parallelism very effectively.

“With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.”

Using parallelism in poetry has the same effect that it does in other types of literature.  The purpose is to establish ideas (sometimes conflicting), to create a rhythm and structure in the lines of poetry, and to use repetition to make a point.  (Hey!  That last sentence uses parallel structure!)