Catering to the Short Attention Span in Syntax -->

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Catering to the Short Attention Span in Syntax

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Rachel Grammer
By Rachel Grammer, Writing Consultant

I'll be the first to admit that I have a short attention span; on certain days, it’s incredibly difficult for me to sit quietly at my desk and focus on the appointment in front of me because my mind craves variety. When I finally get myself settled down with my cup of tea and a paper on the computer, though, my condition is only exacerbated by what I often read:

The researchers chose adult participants between the ages of 35 and 60. The participants worked as engineers, chemists, and biologists. The researchers completed the study within 3 days. The researchers found that 33% of the participants still slept with their teddy bears. The researchers also found that 13% of the participants admitted to needing the bears in order to fall asleep.

Okay, so I haven’t read any studies on adults and teddy bears (though that would be a fun topic to explore!), but you can see how this paragraph might intensify my desire for variety; all the sentences sound the same: The researchers chose, the participants worked, the researchers completed, the researchers found.

This style of writing is boring! Yep, I said it. Instead of giving your readers a sleep agent, try to keep them engaged by varying your syntax, or the way a sentence is structured. New information needs new syntax!

For your paper to have a life of its own, it needs to be active, clear, and engaging. Vary your word choices and sentence patterns to rid your paper of the monotony and encourage the reader’s interest.

Wondering how to detect and then vary your sentence patterns? Here are a few tips:
  • Read the work aloud. Sometimes the ear is better at detecting a boring paragraph than the eye is.
  • Highlight. If you think you’re being repetitive, color code your word choices or sentence parts (e.g. all subjects in blue, all verbs in red, all adverbs in green, etc.) to see if you notice similar words. Once you have discovered your pattern, try to break your habit!
  • Copy and paste your text into Wordle. This site gives you a visual of the words you use most.
  • Combine sentences. For example, The dog was fat. The dog was ugly. The dog walked down the street. I could combine these to get the sentence The fat, ugly dog walked down the street or The dog, who was fat and ugly, walked down the street.
  • Reorder sentences. Switch around the word order to see if you can change a few phrases and break out of the monotony. For example, The lady broke her foot while running to the store might become Running to the store, the lady broke her foot.
  • Vary sentence length. Using short and long sentences creates interest.
While not all readers are as prone to multitasking as I am, varying your syntax can bring extra energy to your paper. Using these tips can help keep your sentences fresh and lively—enough to engage even the shortest attention spans.

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