Parallel Universes


If you’re into science fiction, you’ve probably noticed that a very popular theme is that of parallel universes. The idea that there could be another reality containing an exact or near-exact duplicate of everything has a powerful pull on the imagination. And just this past spring, NASA scientists conducting experiments in Antarctica uncovered evidence that a parallel universe might in fact exist. 

Our brains like parallelism so much that it even carries over into grammar, of all things. What am I talking about? Have a look at these sentences and see if you can pinpoint what’s wrong with them: 

My hobbies are cooking, hikes, and to read.

The goals of the workshop are finishing a first draft of your novel and to proofread it.

Many people will recognize that something isn’t quite right with these examples, but they can’t figure out exactly what. The problem is that they are not parallel in structure. In the first example, cooking is a gerund (a noun formed from a verb by adding -ing); hikes is a plural noun, and to read is the infinitive form of the verb. To fix it, we have to make all three items in the list conform to one grammatical form. The solution here is pretty simple—we can use all gerunds:

My hobbies are cooking, hiking, and reading.

Lack of parallel structure might be a little bit harder to spot in the second example since the non-parallel elements are a bit further apart, but if you look closely, you’ll see that once again we have a gerund heading up the phrase finishing a first draft of your novel but the infinitive to proofread in the second phrase. This time let’s make them both infinitives to fix it:

The goals of the workshop are to finish a first draft of your novel and to proofread it.

The parallel versions read a lot better, don’t they? The reason this works so well is because our brains tend to hold what we’ve just read in short-term memory to use as a template for deciphering what comes next. When the grammatical forms are not similar, the mental processing takes longer.


There are two other situations where you should always doublecheck to make sure your constructions are parallel. One is when you use paired conjunctions such as either…orneither…nornot only…but also (sometimes called correlative conjunctions). Here’s a sentence with correlative conjunctions that’s not parallel:

Either our business will pull through the economic downturn or we will have to close it.

Check out the first phrase: Either our business will pull through the economic downturn—the subject is business. But in the second, we will have to close it, the subject is we.

Here’s a possible solution, making we the subject of both phrases and business the object:

Either we will pull our business through the economic downturn or we will have to close it.


And speaking of business, if that’s what you write for, you might use bullets to make lists easier to read. That’s a great idea—but to maximize the edge that bullets give your reader, you have to make sure—you got it—that they’re parallel.

Check out this non-parallel example:

Our new application guides you through every step of your vacation planning, including:

  • Choosing a destination
  • How to find cheap flights
  • Hotels and reservations
  • Where to eat
  • How do you know which are the best attractions   

Here we have many different kids of grammatical structures, and the constant shifting going on in your brain slows you down when you try to read them. Here’s one possible solution—and notice how in this case we have to reword some of the bullets in order to make them parallel:

Our new application guides you through every step of your vacation planning, including:

  • Choosing a destination
  • Finding cheap flights
  • Booking hotels
  • Selecting restaurants
  • Pinpointing the best attractions

Finally, parallel construction is not just a plaything for fussy grammar nerds; it’s an extremely effective literary device. Look for it in good literature and famous quotes, and you’ll soon start seeing it everywhere, such as:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

  – Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

“ …government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”

 – Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address

Parallel is powerful! Please feel free to share your favorite examples below. 

The Juuuust Right Word

Now that it’s October, in most parts of the country autumn has well and truly set in. But here in Florida, although it’s cooled down a bit, it’s definitely still grilling weather. I don’t know exactly what our neighbors were cooking last Sunday afternoon, but it smelled wonderful.

As I sat on our patio getting hungrier with each passing minute, my brain started searching for the right noun to describe the mouth-watering breezes tickling my nose and my appetite. I mentally ran through a list:

Odor…scent…fragrance…smell…finally I came up with a word that satisfied me: aroma

Then I had to go back and figure out what was not quite right about those other words I’d considered. Odor seems mostly negative—maybe it’s the association with the phrase body odor. Scent wasn’t bad, although it could make you think of a bloodhound tracking something. Fragrance was a bit better since it’s more positive, but I associate that word more with non-food-related pleasant smells such as flowers and perfume.

Smell is kind of a funny word. It seems like it should be fairly neutral, yet if you sniff the air and ask, What’s that smell?, it usually implies that the smell is bad or at least unexpected or strange in some way. But you can modify it to express that it’s a good smell or even, like my neighbors’ dinner, a wonderful smell.   

The word I finally settled on, aroma, fit the bill because it’s generally used to describe pleasant smells, usually in connection with food. A few days ago in my reading I came across a reference to the aroma of flowers, and it sounded just wrong to me.

Now your mileage may vary; maybe these words have different nuances for you. But the point is to think carefully about the words that you choose, especially when describing subjective experiences such as sensory or emotional states. You can consult a dictionary of course, but usually a better bet is to run them past your friends and family (which is exactly what I did in writing this post).

Sometimes the difference between words can be subtle but powerful. Consider this sentence that I recently edited for a friend who is a hypnotist. Originally it read:

Bad habits are easier to break if you use the power of your subconscious mind.

I changed it to:

Bad habits are easier to break when you use the power of your subconscious mind.

Changing just that one small word—if to when—drastically alters the implications of the sentence. The word if suggests that the reader might not be able to tap into the power of the subconscious, whereas when is much more confident that the reader will be able to do so and, consequently, be able to make the positive changes that he or she is seeking.

And on a humorous note, check out this amusing explanation about the distinction between complete and finished!

Do you agree with my assessment of odor, scent, fragrance, smell, and aroma? Does the aroma of flowers sound strange to you, too? What other clusters of words with subtle shades of meaning have you encountered in your reading or writing? Please share your thoughts or any questions below!