The Divine Preposition

A preposition is used so naturally that we often don’t stop to reflect on how it can best impact a sentence. The words tumble out on the page, and if the sentence has the right cadence, we check it off: okay, that one is good. Because a prepositional phrase is so flexible, we tend to forget that it has only two uses: as an adjective or adverb. That places it well down the list in terms of its power to drive a sentence.

That’s why stringing together a bunch of prepositional phrases weakens your prose. I commonly see sentences with three or four prepositional phrases in a row, often encumbered further with adjectives and adverbs. Here’s an elaboration of the sentence above: “A preposition must be placed well down the list of parts of speech in terms of its power to drive a sentence.” Near the beginning of the sentence is the poor verb, place, which is then weighed down with phrase after phrase. The effect is like a skimming stone that finally sinks into the water. Please, give me another verb!

Another misuse I see often stems from the author’s not understanding that a prepositional phrase is both an adjective and an adverb. Here’s an example: “Tall, muscled and with a booming voice, he called out to us.” That construction intuitively feels clunky because of the lack of parallel construction: tall and muscled are single words. The real problem, though, is that with a booming voice functions as an adverb. It shouldn’t be in that string at all. Try this: “Tall, muscled, he called out to us in a booming voice.”  Now the prepositional phrase is clearly modifying the verb.

You might also want to consider where it is placed in terms of its power to set the table for what follows. I usually correct this in if/then sentences. Here’s an illustration: “She came immediately to the basement after a call from Stephanie.” That construction doesn’t feel right, especially the immediately. Immediately because of what? The if condition is buried at the end of the sentence. So it needs to move up front: “After a call from Stephanie, she came immediately to the basement.”

The basic problem is that a prepositional phrase is so useful, our eyes glide right over it. Just about every sentence in this post contains one, and I didn’t even notice. Yet they can gum up sentences when they’re not placed correctly, so make sure that string of words isn’t sapping the power of the verb.

Example: One egregious mistake that has become commonplace in business writing is placing the subject of the sentence in a prepositional phrase. “This version allows for James to pursue . . .” Please, think about which words should be in the prepositional phrase. Could James assume his right position? “In this version, James could pursue . . .”

“In writing you work toward a result you won’t see for years, and can’t be sure you’ll ever see. It takes stamina and self-mastery and faith.”
—Tobias Wolff

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.