Unseemly Prepositions

Tightening up flabby sentences can seem more difficult than firming up flabby thighs. However, polishing and trimming your finished writing doesn’t have to be such hard work. There are several easy tricks that can help any writer tone up the most awkward, sprawling sentences.

Here’s one little gem that I often share with my writing coaching clients: Spotting and eliminating unnecessary prepositional phrases.

Here’s how it works…

QUICK REFRESHER: NATURE AND USE OF PREPOSITIONAL PHRASES

First of all, what’s a preposition? It’s a type of word that functions rather like linguistic “connective tissue.” A preposition denotes a relationship of location, time, action, or movement. (Here’s a pretty good list of prepositions.)com

Next, what’s a prepositional phrase? A prepositional phrase is a part of a sentence that begins with a preposition and ends with a noun or pronoun (the object of the preposition). The purpose of a prepositional phrase is to relate (connect) that “object” to the rest of the sentence.

For example, the previous paragraph includes these prepositional phrases:

  • “of a sentence”
  • “with a preposition”
  • “with a noun or pronoun”
  • “of the preposition”
  • “of a prepositional phrase”
  • “to the rest”
  • “of the sentence”

We need prepositional phrases. They allow us to juxtapose ideas meaningfully. They can also provide a sense of flow, to keep our speech or writing from getting too choppy or terse. Used well, prepositional phrases are valuable tools for clarifying and smoothing our language.

However, prepositional phrases often get overused – and that’s the problem I’m tackling in this article.

HOW AND WHY WE ABUSE PREPOSITIONAL PHRASES

If you’re like most people, your thoughts sometimes race far ahead of your ability to put them into words. During frantic efforts to catch up with one’s thoughts, people commonly use prepositional phrases to hastily string together concepts. This allows you to get all of the necessary concepts and relationships out of your head and into sentence form. However, the resulting sentence probably isn’t constructed in a particularly efficient or effective manner.

Here’s what such a sentence can look like:

Example A: “While considerable work has been done over the last two decades on authentication within institutions and, more recently, in support of consumer-oriented electronic commerce on the Internet, a series of new technical and policy issues emerge in the cross-organizational authentication and access management context.”

Conversely, sometimes when speaking or writing you get a “gut feeling” that certain concepts are related within your train of thought – but you haven’t clearly mapped out the exact nature of that relationship. In this case, you may tend to pepper your sentences with prepositional phrases that denote vague or confusing relationships; or you may use prepositional phrases to jam together too many concepts in a single sentence. Uncorrected, such “rough draft” communication can baffle your audience.

Here’s how that type of writing problem looks:

Example B: “The operator of the network resource, which may be a web site, or a resource reached by other protocols such as Telnet terminal emulation or the Z39.50 information retrieval protocol, needs to decide whether users seeking access to the resource are actually members of the user community that the licensee institution defined as part of the license agreement.”

In both of those examples, unnecessary prepositional phrases are definitely not the only writing problems present. However, focusing on the prepositional phrases can be the key to unraveling many interrelated sentence-structure difficulties.

THE TRICK

If your writing tends to feel rather rambling or flabby, try this quick toning trick.

  1. Prioritize the trouble spots. Look through your document and identify which parts need the most work – that is, which parts sound the least coherent, most confusing, or most rambling. This may comprise whole sections of your document, or just a few sentences there and there, or just a few awkward sentences or transitions.

    If you have difficulty finding the worst spots, read your document aloud. Or ask a trusted colleague or friend to read through it and tell you which parts sound the least clear or the most clunky. Areas containing several sentences in excess of 20 words apiece are likely candidates.

  2. Find the prepositional phrases within each major trouble spot. Literally, read through each awkward sentence word by word looking for prepositional phrases.

  3. Analyze each prepositional phrase you find. Ask yourself:
    • Which concepts does it connect?
    • Does the phrase add much value to the sentence? If not, try deleting that prepositional phrase altogether. If the sentence remains at least as strong without it, leave it out. For instance, in example A above, “…electronic commerce on the Internet” is probably redundant. Most likely this could be shortened to “…electronic commerce.”
    • If the concepts and relationship expressed in the phrase are needed, can you reorder their presentation in a more efficient way? For instance, in example B above, “…of the user community that the licensee institution defined as part of the license agreement” probably could be shortened to “…of the user community defined in the institution’s license agreement.” (Or even, possibly, “…of the defined community of licensed users.”)
    • Can you substitute more precise words for entire phrases? English offers a rich vocabulary, so feel free to use it. For instance, in example A, “…users seeking access to the resource” could be changed to “…prospective users.”
  4. Repeat. Using this process, work your way through the clunkiest spots in your document first. Address less-clunky areas as time permits.

BENEFITS OF THIS TRICK

Although this strategy focuses on prepositional phrases, it actually can solve a wide range of difficulties in grammar, flow, and style.

In particular, it can help you easily spot run-on sentences (and see where they should be divided), passive verbs, unclear distinctions between actors and actions (or causes and results), unnecessary details, and distracting tangents.

The key is to keep the right attitude. Approach this task as a puzzle or word game. Don’t try to fix everything. Clarity does not require perfection. Simply strive to fix the worst problems first, and then as many others as you can given your time constraints. Don’t berate yourself for overusing prepositional phrases – everbody does it.

Over time, the benefits of practicing this technique are enormous. Once you become conscious of this issue and how to address it, you’ll find yourself structuring sentences more efficiently the first time around. it works like magic. You’ll love it. And your editors and readers will love you for it.