Prepositions: ON the frontlines OF the enemy OF bad writing

One of the simplest, most effective ways to simplify and clarify your writing is to eliminate prepositions. It’s incredibly easy to do, and usually you can replace them with strong adjectives or adverbs instead.

Identifying a preposition

First, you have to know what a preposition is. Think of them as words that begin short phrases that aren’t complete sentences.  Here are some examples:

  • About
  • Of
  • Through
  • In
  • Outside
  • With (and without)

You can find a comprehensive list here.

What’s wrong with a preposition?

Too many prepositions in one sentence usually indicate wasteful construction and a kind of stuttering rhythm.

For example, say this sentence aloud:
An understanding of market forces is necessary for any investor in mutual funds at this time.

You can hear how this sentence plods on and on. It’s not streamlined, and it doesn’t have good forward momentum. That’s because of all of the prepositions.

Did you catch them all?
An understanding OF market forces is necessary FOR any investor IN mutual funds AT this time.

Now that we’ve recognized the prepositions, let’s eradicate as many as we can.
Understanding market forces is necessary for any mutual fund investor today.

That rhythm is slightly better. But it still lacks concision, power, and variation, You still have an abstract sentence subject—“understanding market forces”—as well as an entire sentence hinging on a to-be verb—“is.” Interestingly, prepositional phrases are often correlated with to-be verbs.

Chain of fools

A sentence with too many prepositions is like a weak chain. There are links upon links of prepositional phrases, often held together by only one weak verb. Put too much pressure on it, and it will break. What’s more– all of the components of a chain are the same size; they aren’t distinguishable from one another. That isn’t what you want in your writing. You want sentences where words have variation, giving your sentences compelling rhythms and clear focal points.

By removing unnecessary prepositional phrases, we can see opportunities for further, sharper revision.

Let’s go back to our sample sentence. After that first revision, you can then see how to rewrite the sentence with a stronger, concrete subject and an active verb:
Today’s mutual fund investors need to understand market forces.

Admittedly, this sentence doesn’t pack a meaningful punch, and I’d likely advise a client to provide further explanation—which market forces do mutual fund investors need to understand? Why is this so important “today,” rather than before? That said, by revising, we can more easily see the lack of substance. The original version reads like a fog of words. Maybe it is saying something, but we can’t tell. Once we revise, we can say, “I’m not really sure how much value this sentence adds.”

Fixing it

This issue is one I wouldn’t worry about while drafting. We use prepositions frequently in spoken language, and I recommend drafting the way you talk. This approach almost always guarantees better clarity and richer substance.

That said, once you’ve drafted, go back and hunt out the prepositions first and foremost. It’s one of the fastest and easiest editing tricks.

Some other quick usage tips with prepositions:

  1. It actually is totally fine to end a sentence with one.
  2. Typically prepositions aren’t capitalized in titles. (Visit this Grammar Girl entry if you want to know the exceptions to this rule.)

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