The Wooden Train

The prepositional phrase can function as a rhythmic device. Because it usually contains a preposition and an article, such as “of the,” the little words help to make the sentence bounce along, if that is the effect you’re going for. Placing two phrases back to back can double that rat-a-tat-tat, especially when you place dense, long words at the front and back ends of a sentence. “The coarse wool on the nape of her neck sprang out wildly from its bun.”

The skipping cadence, however, does not change the fact that a prepositional phrase is a modifier, and not an efficient one at that. An adjective or adverb gets the job done in only one word. So when you adopt a style laden with strings of these phrases, you can find sentences often sagging. “Of the” just doesn’t have much locomotive power. They merely get us to the object of the phrase, and that itself depends, as in leaning, on the word the phrase is modifying.

So when I see a string like “The ball bounced off the wall on the side toward the front,” I feel the skipping has slowed to a trudge. All the the’s are clogging up the sentence. In this case I’m inclined toward clean: “The ball bounced off the side wall toward the front” conveys the same meaning with less words. The ball’s bouncing becomes more animated as a result.

One pernicious use of a prepositional phrase is gussying up an ordinary sentence. Here’s an example: “The wood grain on the board closest to me ended at a hole in the table once occupied by a knot.” This is a large expenditure of words to describe a common feature on a piece of furniture. That sentence could just as well read: “The grain on the board closest to me ended at a hollow knot hole.” Not much happening in the first place, so why drag it out?

Exercise: Review the manuscript solely for prepositional phrases, especially ones used back-to-back. Do you have compelling words, especially active verbs, at either end, driving the phrases forward? If not, weigh out whether an adjective or adverb could do the descriptive work. Some searching might turn up a word that adds more vibrancy—while being more economical.

“From now on, ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put.”
―Winston S. Churchill

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine

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