I listen to a lot of audio books. Most are read by professional readers. Every now and then a reader stumbles and emphasizes the wrong word. It’s tempting to attribute such errors to the reader, but I’ve notice that when a professional reader stumbles, there’s likely a stumbling block in the writing.

Read out loud this passage from Scott Smith’s The Ruins:

Amy kept whispering the same thing. “It’s time.”

Stacy struggled first to grasp the words, then their meaning.

Did you emphasize any of the words, even slightly?

In the audio version of the book, Patrick Wilson, the reader, emphasized the word grasp. “Stacy struggled first to grasp the words, then their meaning.” Clearly this is the wrong emphasis. Better emphasis would be, “Stacy struggled first to grasp the words, then their meaning.”

What makes Wilson stumble? My guess is this: The sentence promises a parallel structure, and then fails to deliver.

The word first announces a sequence: First X, then Y. Readers expect the two parts of the sequence—the X and the Y—to have a parallel grammatical structure. For the structure to be parallel, the two items, whether words or phrases, must fulfill the same grammatical function. If one is a verb phrase, the other will be a verb phrase. If one is a noun phrase, the other will be a noun phrase.

Here’s a quick-and-dirty test for whether a structure is parallel:  Extract the X and Y from the sentence and put them in a list. Then ask yourself whether the items have the same grammatical function.

The X and Y from Smith’s sentence are:

Do these phrases have the same grammatical function? No. To grasp the words is a verb phrase. Their meaning is a noun phrase. The structure is not parallel.

If you aren’t sure of the grammatical functions of the items, try this. Create a new sentence by swapping the X and the Y and read again. The new sentence may not make sense semantically (after all, we’ve swapped the order of the sequence), but if it works grammatically, the structure is parallel. If the new sentence doesn’t flow grammatically, the structure is not parallel.

Let’s swap Smith’s X and Y: Stacy struggled first their meaning, then to grasp the words. That doesn’t flow grammatically, so the original structure was not parallel.

How could we fix this? One way is to add parts to the smaller phrase until it matches the structure of the longer phrase: Stacy struggled first to grasp the words, then to grasp their meaning. Now the phrases are both verb phrases, and the structure is parallel.

But there’s another piece to the puzzle of how Wilson stumbled. First is one of those words that invites us to emphasize the next meaningful word. The next meaningful word in Smith’s sentence is grasp, so we emphasize that. Even in our revised sentence, grasp is the wrong word to emphasize.

Another way to repair the sentence is to move parts out of the larger phrase, until it matches the structure of the shorter phrase: Stacy struggled to grasp first the words, then their meaning. This seems overly formal to me, but the structure is parallel, and first invites us to place the emphasis in the right place: first words, then meaning.