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I have seen people using the expression "hard to read at spots" for stating that some parts of a text are unclear, or that some reading conditions are negatively affecting the understanding of the text. However, I couldn't find more information about it on my search for the expression, excepting that "at spots" may also be used alone to represent "in some places", which suggests "at spots" is the real expression that I'm questioning here.

Regardless, I am only concerned about the formality of stating that "____ is hard to read at spots". Could it be used in formal writing, such as in academia? Or should I say "in spots" or "in places" instead?

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    There is no idiom. "Hard to read" has a straight-forward meaning, and "in spots" (not usually "at spots") simply means that this problem only occurs in localized areas of the overall document or whatever. – Hot Licks Mar 22 '15 at 19:52
  • @HotLicks That might be indeed why I couldn't find much information. I have edited the question. – E_net4 the disappointed Ferris Mar 22 '15 at 20:01
  • In formal writing I would tend to say something more like "Portions of the document were difficult to read", and perhaps explain briefly why -- smudged printing, poor photocopy, whatever. – Hot Licks Mar 22 '15 at 20:03
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    Hard to read covers any possible flaw that affects one's reading, from the ones @HotLicks cites to turgid prose, run-on sentences, blatant lies, ALL CAPS, etc. Whatever turns you off. – John Lawler Mar 22 '15 at 22:31
  • Good point. But now I find it unfortunate that people are tackling anything but the actual question. – E_net4 the disappointed Ferris Mar 23 '15 at 0:19
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There is nothing wrong with the grammar of the sentence nor is it language unsuitable for formal writing.

If you want, you can describe the difficulties presented in those spots.

  • The writing is illegible.
  • The print has been obscured.
  • The wording is ambiguous.
  • The grammar is flawed.
  • The spelling is inconsistent.

This tends to be helpful in formal writing because there exists an expectation of more accuracy or detail.

The article was hard to read in spots due to ambiguous wording compounded with inconsistent spelling.

Edited to clarify: I changed "hard to read at spots" to "hard to read in spots" in the quote above. It does feel more natural to say "in spots" than "at spots" here. Google indicates that "in spots" is a lot more common than "at spots" (ngram).

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    Note that you changed "at spots" to "in spots" without comment. Please say whether you think "at spots" is more informal than, or simply less clear than "in spots". – Brian Hitchcock Mar 24 '15 at 7:09
  • @BrianHitchcock Thanks. I had changed it in response to the comments on the OP. – Paul Rowe Mar 24 '15 at 13:57

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