Too Much of a Good Thing?
The English language is awash with prepositions … we could hardly communicate without them. Problems arise however when our writing sports too many prepositional phrases (examples are shown below).
What is a Preposition, anyway?
- “Fluffy is lying on the desk.”
- “Your brother’s cow is in our corn.”
- “She was terribly afraid of the noisy ghost.”
As one of my grammar teachers explained, “A preposition includes anything you can do to a box.” That is: you can sit inside a box, you can climb beneath a box, you can stand beside it, walk across it, hang above it, sit near it, see beyond it, jump over it, lean against it, run through it, etc.
Some grammar lessons use the word “desk” instead of “box,” but either way the analogy works for most prepositions. Besides explaining where, prepositions also tell when, how or which one. The English language contains about 150 prepositions, although most writers use around 70 of them. Click to open a list of Common One-Word Prepositions.
Prepositional Phrases in a Nutshell
Please bear with one more bit of information about prepositions. A prepositional phrase consists of a preposition, its object (basically a noun) and any modifiers for that object (including the). As you will see, a sentence can include an unlimited number of prepositional phrases, unfortunately. This sentence contains three:
A bright orange spaceship from the planet Mars landed in the middle of our front yard.
All of the prepositions in that sentence have objects, along with a few modifiers. If a preposition does not have an object, then the word is not functioning as a preposition at the time. Okay, enough with the explanations – let’s see some examples!
Prepositional phrases dramatically increase the number of words in a sentence, a paragraph, an article or a story. Sometimes there appears no way around this increase, but much of the time a writer can replace a wordy prepositional phrase with a simple, yet more powerful, adjective or adverb. Check out the following examples.
It is a matter of utmost importance to the safety of everyone traveling on the Skyline Drive this weekend that he or she should avoid stopping anywhere along the way because of the repair work being performed on the tracks that run parallel to the highway.
(46 words – 8 prep. phrases)
This weekend no one should stop along Skyline Drive because of railroad track construction. (16 words – 2 prep. phrases)
Note: Removing or condensing rampant prepositional phrases relieves crowding, which helps readers more easily comprehend the intended message.
During the early morning hours Patrick, of the Gallagher clan, rode his green bicycle with the wobbly tire beyond the city limits and toward the white cliffs to watch the waves crash against the rocks and think about his future if he decided to enroll in the Clarence Institute.
(49 words – 9 prep. phrases)
In the early morning Patrick Gallagher rode his wobbly green bicycle to the white cliffs where he could watch the crashing waves and contemplate his enrollment in the Clarence Institute.
(30 words – 3 prep. phrases)
Note: The Rewrite tells the same story about Patrick but without the clutter. Now the reader can more easily visualize the activity.
If you plan to submit your fiction or nonfiction to a writing contest or to an editor /publisher, better scan your work for an overabundance of prepositional phrases first. Here are a few guidelines you can use for measuring the number of prepositional phrases in your writing:
- If your text contains 20 to 25% prepositions, that’s too many.
- If a sentence contains more than four prepositional phrases, try to transform some of the phrases into adverbs or adjectives.
- If you find yourself reading a dull passage, or skimming over words, then the writing may suffer from preposition overdose.
Although our goal is not to eliminate prepositional phrases from our writing, we should try to reduce their numbers whenever possible … in order to make our writing tighter!
The following post offers tips for reducing the number of Prepositional Phrases in your writing.
(c) November 23, 2011
How to Reduce Prolific Prepositions