As writers and editors, we continually study the language and find ways, both new and old, to write better. One way we can make our writing sharper is to limit the number of prepositions we use. Now, that is not to say prepositions are bad. They are not. We need them. They often give us additional information such as where something takes place or how something happens. But what is bad is when a sentence is so full of prepositions that we need a road map to find our way through it.
First, it’s important to identify prepositions. Somewhere during the middle years of our education, we memorized a huge list of prepositions. To help jar that memory, here’s a short list of the more popular prepositions:
For a full list, you can visit one of the many websites devoted to this topic, such as https://www.englishclub.com/grammar/prepositions-list.htm or https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_English_prepositions. Do be aware: just because a word appears on the list does not mean it is always a preposition. Some words (such as “but”) sometimes act like prepositions and sometimes act like a different part of speech, such as a conjunction. So, it’s important not to memorize the list, but to recognize prepositions because of the way they behave. How do they behave, you ask? They add information. They tell us where or when or how.
A prepositional phrase is a phrase that begins with a preposition and includes the added detail that follows it. The detail usually comes in the form of a noun, pronoun, or gerund. Sometimes an adjective or other modifier will modify the noun. So, a prepositional phrase looks like this: at the store; before the storm; until it rains; while the sun is shining.
So, let’s get to how using prepositions—or, more specifically, NOT using prepositions—can make your writing sharper. As an editor, we are trained to keep our eyes open for anything that sucks the power out of prose. If you’ve looked over the tip sheets available on our website, you’ll know we preach against the overuse of a lot of things—adjectives, adverbs, ellipses, em-dashes, exclamation marks, italics, unnecessary words, etc., etc. One thing—at least, as of this date—we haven’t complained about is the preponderance of prepositions. But recently I’ve noticed overuse of prepositions in both fiction and nonfiction. And overusing prepositions creates long, boring sentences. Take this one, for example:
I sat at the pool at Stacy’s house under the umbrella with red stripes with Sherry from Grantsville until the clock beneath the awning of the clubhouse showed dinnertime.
Yuck! Just for fun, how many prepositions can you find in that sentence? Go ahead and count them. Here’s what I found: at, at, under, with, with, from, until, beneath, of. Nine!
So, how can we write this better? First, we look for ownership. How many times did we use a prepositional phrase instead of using a possessive? I’m seeing three times. If the pool is at Stacy’s house, we can probably assume it’s Stacy’s pool. So, we can cut at Stacy’s house and make this Stacy’s pool. If we’re under the umbrella with red stripes, why can’t we just say the red-striped umbrella? Another preposition cut. And then there’s always that pesky of. Of is unnecessary when it’s used to show ownership, such as in this case. So, we can quickly ditch it by changing the awning of the clubhouse to the clubhouse awning. We’ve cut three prepositions and now have:
I sat at Stacy’s pool under the red-striped umbrella with Sherry from Grantsville until the clock beneath the clubhouse awning showed dinnertime.
Second, we look for unnecessary details. Does it matter where the clock is located? Unless this has something to do with the story, it most likely does not. What is important is the time the clock shows, not where the clock resides. So, let’s cut beneath the clubhouse awning (or the original, beneath the awning of the clubhouse). And, really, do we need to involve the clock at all? It’s only the time that matters, not the clock. So, let’s cut the clock. Does it matter where Sherry is from? This one is tough to tell when a sentence is pulled out of context. But, more than likely, we don’t need that information.
Our sentence now looks like this:
I sat at Stacy’s pool under the red-striped umbrella with Sherry until dinnertime.
That brings us down to four prepositions: at, under, with, until.
Can we do better? Of course! If we’re with Sherry, why don’t we say, Sherry and I?
Sherry and I sat at Stacy’s pool under the red-striped umbrella until dinnertime.
Those are about all the easy fixes, and we’re down to three prepositions. According to some style guides and other advisors of good writing, we should never have more than two prepositions in a sentence (count how many prepositions are in this sentence). So, let’s see if we can cut one more. Reading this sentence, the prepositional phrase that still bothers me the most is under the red-striped umbrella. The first thing we can do is consider if this is needed information or not. If not, we can simply cut it. But if we need this information, we’ll need to rearrange the sentence. Note that rearranging can result in sentences with stronger verbs—a side-effect we can celebrate.
The red-striped umbrella shaded the pool where Sherry and I sat until dinnertime.
Wow! We’ve come a long way from our awkward original sentence. I’d still like to play with it and be more creative like saying “until the dinner bell rang” or something, but without knowing the context, it’s difficult to do those things. Still, we have a more precise sentence that’s easier on the eyes, the ears, and the brain.
Our goal in life should not be to rid ourselves of every preposition. Prepositions are essential. They provide the details and specifics we need to make sense of information. However, overusing prepositions is a serious problem and one we need to fix. We need to make it a habit to count the prepositions in our awkward sentences—and then find ways to get rid of as many as we can.
As with anything, practicing is what makes us better at identifying and finding replacements. I challenge you to:
1. Count the prepositions in the example sentence, and
2. Reduce the prepositions.
Put your response in a comment below, and we’ll send a set of “Comma Usage” and “Writing Wrongs” tip cards to a random commenter.
Here’s the sentence to stretch your patience—er, I mean, your writing skills:
Susan went to the dentist by the name of “Will Hurt” to have her tooth with decay pulled with forceps for extraction after she had a shot of Novocaine to anesthetize her gums around the tooth with pain.
(Hint: chronological order is a good habit).