Losing prepositions

When the little words get out of hand

“People hustle their way at the avenue, as the majority crossed onto the other side. Yellow-shirted men on navy blue pants stood through the subway entrance.”

Those two simple sentences include four prepositional errors: “at the avenue,” “onto the other side,” “on navy blue pants,” and “through the subway entrance.” Most readers would understand the sentences, though a few might chuckle at the image of men standing atop navy blue pants. Some might recognize such a passage as the work of a non-native English speaker.

For those learning English as a second language, prepositions are among the most difficult parts of speech to master. They’re in good company: Computers trying to replicate natural language have prepositional problems too, as Macmillan Dictionary’s blog has noted.

Those little words can change meaning. Someone “sitting in a convertible” is not the same as someone “sitting on a convertible.” Most native English speakers “get” prepositions, with the occasional confusion over which to use in some cases, as noted last week with “in/on an island.” Even so, we often don’t recognize when prepositions are not needed.

Take this sentence: “The chairwoman of the board of directors was in a hurry, so she grabbed her purse from off of the chair and put it on her shoulder.” It’s grammatical and descriptive. But the action being described took less time than reading about it did. All those prepositional phrases slowed the sentence. Yes, nobody would write that way (or so we hope). But it’s a good example of how to reduce unnecessary prepositions.

“Of” prepositional phrases are among the most common, most overused, and most condensable phrases. Just changing “the chairwoman of the board of directors” to “the board chairwoman” saves four words and saves a reader from having to revise the mental image of the chairman twice: “She’s a chairwoman. Oh, she’s a chairwoman of a board. Oh, she’s a chairwoman of a board of directors.” In many cases, she can just be a “chairwoman.”

It’s easy to change “from off of the chair,” too, first by losing “of” (“from off the chair”) and then by eliminating the double preposition (“from the chair” or “off the chair.”) In fact, most double prepositions can be eliminated. “At about 8pm,” for example, can be “about 8pm.”

So now we have “The chairwoman was in a hurry, so she grabbed her purse from the chair and put it on her shoulder.” Much better!

But wait! There’s more!

The phrase “in a hurry” is prepositional, too. You don’t want to eliminate it, because it describes her state, but you can make it shorter and snappier by changing the prepositional phrase into an adverb: “was in a hurry” becomes “hurriedly.”

“The chairwoman hurriedly grabbed her purse from the chair and put it on her shoulder.” Our 27-word sentence is down to 15 words.

But wait! There’s more!

Remember, this is a fast action by a hurried woman. Let the sentence pacing reflect that by eliminating yet another prepositional phrase: “on her shoulder.” If you think it’s important that readers know what kind of purse it is, why not make that phrase into an adjective and speed the sentence even more: “The chairwoman hurriedly grabbed her shoulder purse from the chair.” And if you’re really trimming to the bone, make it “The chairwoman hurriedly grabbed her purse,” jettisoning the chair and the type of purse.

The original sentence, with 27 words and five prepositional phrases, has now become a slim and fast six words with no prepositional phrases.

This is not to say that every prepositional phrase is bad and needs to be cut. But repurposing unnecessary ones into more active or descriptive parts of a sentence can make your writing much smoother.

Just think of prepositional phrases as detours, and see how direct you can make your route.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.