Watch for Visually Distracting Phrases

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Writers (and readers) face many perils — faulty grammar, mangled syntax, and misplaced, missing, or extraneous punctuation among them — but there’s one form of distraction writers might more easily overlook: Visually (and/or acoustically) distracting groups of words that, for one of three reasons, create obstacles to clear reading.

One type of obstruction is repetition of sounds, either alliterative or assonant. Alliteration, the use of several words in sequence or within a sentence that start with the same sound, can be an effective technique, especially in poetry or just for fun (I use it often), but when it’s inadvertent (and sometimes when it’s deliberate), it just gets in the way.

In the following sentence, for example, three of the first five words start with the letter r: “In regard to residents’ reviews, those who lived in the city where a restaurant is located tended to give the restaurant lower ratings than tourists did.” “In regard to” is clunky, and the sentence could begin simply with however instead of the alliterative introductory phrase. Another solution is to scatter the alliterative words, as in the revision from “These individuals often present complex clinical-care needs” to “These individuals often present complex needs for clinical care.”

A similar potential obstruction is assonance, the repetition of vowel sounds within or at the end of a word. For example, three of the first four words in the introductory phrase in “Due to their redo being late, I didn’t get a chance to evaluate it” end in the -oo sound. (Read the phrase quickly three times without a pause and tell me it doesn’t sound like the first notes of a classic circus and carnival tune.) “Due to” is awkward under any circumstances (except in usage such as “The ceremony is due to begin soon”); use because instead.

Another distraction is the proximal use of two or more words with the same or similar letter sequences but different pronunciations, as in “There were some elements that weren’t thought through enough.” This unfortunate pileup requires more extensive revision — one possibility is “They didn’t sufficiently think some elements through.”

Yet another problematic construction is one that inadvertently places two antonyms together, as in “Check your manuscript’s structure to make sure it doesn’t topple over under reader scrutiny,” where the words over and under are uncomfortably close. In this case, over can be deleted, or replace “topple over” with a synonym like collapse.

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