Some experienced business and technical writers view prepositional phrases as evil. I wouldn’t go that far … sometimes they are essential. But I can confirm that writers who “write tight” use as few prepositional phrases as possible. Writers who reduce their prepositional phrases consistently create tighter, clearer, more active prose, much to the delight of their audiences.
5 Tips for Replacing Prepositional Phrases
Here are some tips for reducing the number of prepositional phrases in your writing.
Tip One: Turn the object of the preposition into a direct or indirect object, thereby eliminating the wordy phrase.
As he handed the check to me, he seemed reluctant to let it go.
Delete the prepositional phrase “to me” by placing “me” after the verb.
As he handed me the check, he seemed reluctant to let it go.
While this may seem like a minor change, it is a big one to editors, publishers, instructors, and writing contest judges.
[As an aside, that sentence reminds me of a scene in the movie Ghost where Rita Mae reluctantly handed someone a multi-million dollar check. Ah, but I digress.]
Tip Two: Replace the prepositional phrase with an adverb.
The child grabbed her coat in a hurry.
Change the phrase “in a hurry” to the adverb “hurriedly” and move it next to the subject.
The child hurriedly grabbed her coat.
This places the action closer to the actor (the child), which is good. Even though some writers eschew adverbs, if you need to choose between burying an important word like “hurry” inside a prepositional phrase or transforming it into an adverb, do the latter.
Here’s another example for Tip Two:
Due to the drought, our water use is under close scrutiny.
Turn “under close” into “closely” and change the noun “scrutiny” to the verb “scrutinized.”
Due to the drought, our water use is closely scrutinized.
Remember: A prepositional phrase consists of a preposition + a noun and usually some modifiers. Although the prepositional phrase contains a noun, that particular noun cannot be the subject of the sentence. Therefore, you are free to change the object of a preposition into another part of speech when you delete the preposition.
Tip Three: Replace the prepositional phrase with an adjective or noun modifier (a noun modifying a noun).
It is the nature of humans to enjoy water.
This sentence has two prepositional phrases: “of humans” and “to enjoy water.” Get rid of the last one by placing “human” before the subject.
It is human nature to enjoy water.
You could actually modify the sentence further to read:
Enjoying water is human nature.
But that involves yet another part of speech which we will save for a future lesson. Whew … Isn’t that a relief?
Tip Four: Replace the prepositional phrase with a possessive noun. Sometimes this move may not make sense, but when it does, it is a good way to delete an unnecessary prepositional phrase.
Darren plans to supervise the training of his parrot.
Change “training of his parrot” to “parrot’s training.”
Darren plans to supervise his parrot’s training.
Another example for Tip Four:
I was confused by the plot of the movie.
Replace the second prepositional phrase with a possessive …
I was confused by the movie’s plot.
Tip Five: If the sentence is passive, transform it to active. This often eliminates one or more prepositional phrases.
There are plenty of writing tips on her website.
Whenever you see “there are” (or “there is”) find a way to reword the sentence to eliminate the passive opener. In this sentence, transform the noun from the second prepositional phrase into the subject of the sentence and add the verb “contains.” This solves the passive and wordy problems at the same time.
Her website contains plenty of writing tips.
Another example for Tip Five …
That idea is of interest to me.
That idea interests me.
Hey, we removed two prepositional phrases with that move! Here’s another example:
The puppy was brought to the vet by an old woman.
An old woman brought the puppy to the vet.
The object of a preposition holds the weakest position in the sentence. In your writing, if you find that an important word has become part of a prepositional phrase, find a way to get it out of there!
(c) December 4, 2011