Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech includes prolific examples of parallel structure. With his ministerial, faith-based roots, King used his superb rhetorical skills to create an inspirational piece of history. While the entire speech is well-crafted, King uses parallel structure -- the intentional repetition of grammatical structures -- to organize, connect and emphasize the most important elements.
Parallel structure organizes related information. In the second paragraph of King’s “I Have a Dream Speech,” four consecutive sentences begin with the phrase “one hundred years later.” Each sentence reveals a different element of despair or hardship the African-American community faced: poverty, discrimination and segregation. King uses the phrase “one hundred years later” -- referring to the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation -- to organize effectively and communicate clearly the present plight and the need for change.
Clarifies Author's Intent
Parallel structure clarifies and highlights an author’s intent by building up to a more important point. For example, King repeats “We cannot be satisfied as long as” and “We can never be satisfied as long as” five times in the span of 10 sentences. A few of these statements even stand alone as an independent paragraph to draw further attention. Following each repeated structure is a reason why “we cannot be satisfied”: the lack of safety, housing, voting rights and personal dignity. After building his case with these statements, King inverts the structure to say, “No, no, we are not satisfied, we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” The foundation built through parallel structure enables this last sentence to fully reveals King’s desire for justice.
Emphasizes Significant Elements
Parallel structure emphasizes certain elements and points. King also draws on parallel structure to stress a sense of urgency. Repeating the clause “now is the time” four times across two paragraphs, King forces the audience to think in present terms. In this example King also employs a more advance technique of parallelism -- repeating grammatical structures. After each “now is the time,” King follows with an infinitive phrase -- the word “to” followed by a verb -- to call his audience to action. For example, “to make,” “to rise” and “to lift” are all found after the clause “now is the time.” In combining these two techniques, King crafts a sophisticated and emotive example of parallel structure.
Parallel structure unifies a text. For example, the title of the speech “I Have a Dream” is a repeated clause that appears throughout the text. Sometimes at the beginning and in the middle of sentences and at other times appearing independently, the phrase points to the purpose of King’s speech. To illustrate his dream further and create unity, King uses phrases such as “with this we will be able,” highlighting his visions for the future. He also uses parallel structure in lists to achieve this end. For example, he states, “We will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together.” This statement illustrates literal unity, while also producing a cohesive text.
Based in West Palm Beach, Fla., Emily Layfield has been writing and editing education-related work since 2009. She holds a Bachelor of Science in English and English/ language arts education and a Master of Arts in secondary English education from Auburn University.