The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines prepositions as “a word or group of words that is used with a noun, pronoun, or noun phrase to show direction, location, or time, or to introduce an object.” Examples include words such as of, in, on, for, etc. There is a long list of prepositions we use in our daily speech and writing, and it would be near impossible to construct any paragraph without using the occasional preposition.
There is, however, a catch to preposition use. Like most essential parts of speech, prepositions can also be misused and harm your sentence fluidity. While seemingly innocuous and insignificant, prepositions can poison sentences if not carefully monitored. There are two main problems we must keep in mind when using prepositions: one, ending sentences with prepositions and two, wordiness. Let’s look at both these areas and address how to avoid them when writing.
Ending Sentences with Prepositions
Okay, so this first subject, prepositions at the end of sentences, is most definitely a controversial grammatical topic. Many grammarians disagree over whether ending a sentence with a preposition is acceptable. Here’s the middle ground of that discussion, and hopefully this compromise will help improve your writing.
There will be times that ending a sentence with a preposition makes the most sense and reads the best. Sentences such as “What were you walking in?” need to include the preposition at the end. Yes, you could technically flip the sentence around to ask, “In what were you walking?,” but that sounds worse than ending the sentence with the preposition. Often, alternatives to ending with a preposition sound overly formal and should only be used in certain settings, such as formal letters, grants, resumes, etc. A question like “Who were you on the phone with?” does end with a preposition, but the alternate solution, “With whom were you on the phone?,” would sit funny in most situations. This of course means that it is up to the writer’s discretion on when to use the casual and formal tones.
However, regardless of the formalness of the situation, many times we end sentences with prepositions when we could easily reword the sentence. Often, we add prepositions to the end of a sentence that would function fine without it. For example, I often hear people ask, “Where did you go to?” You could drop the “to” at the end of the sentence and still have the same meaning. Asking “Where did you go?” sound much better than “Where did you go to?”. So, watch out for those unneeded prepositions we like to throw in.
Prepositions and Wordiness
This is the real secret sentence poisoner when it comes to prepositions. If your sentences contain too many prepositions, they bog down your writing. There are several examples of sentences below that use prepositions poorly as well as corrected versions of them. Keep in mind that some of these sentences may possess additional problems, but focus on the preposition usage.
Bad: This paper will examine the various arguments of scholars on the topic of economic inequality in Africa.
Good: This paper will examine the various scholarly arguments concerning economic inequality in Africa.
Bad: The Tempest by Shakespeare is a great story of revenge within a family and reconciliation of those same family members by the end of the play.
Good: Shakespeare’s The Tempest tells a powerful familial revenge story, with the family members reconciling at the play’s conclusion.
Bad: Many of the students at the nearby college work hard for their grades regardless of their individual financial situations.
Good: Many of the nearby college students work hard for their grades despite individual financial strife.
So, just from reading these “bad” sentences, you may not notice straight away why they sound so wordy or strange. Often, we overuse prepositions without noticing, and this overuse negatively affects our sentences. When you compare the bad sentences to the improved versions, the absence of the unnecessary preposition makes quite the difference.
Most of the bad examples have a similar problem. We often use phrases like “students at the nearby college” and “The Tempest by Shakespeare” when we could shorten it to “nearby college students” and “Shakespeare’s The Tempest.” Notice that both of these phrases change up the word order, and that is what you will probably find in your own writing. You will want to experiment with how you use prepositions. Start counting how many prepositions are in each sentence. A good rule of thumb is anywhere from zero to three prepositions, all depending on the sentence length of course. You may sometimes exceed that rule of thumb, but so long as most of your sentences follow this rule, you should be fine. If you notice yourself using too many prepositions, look for those phrases like “the various arguments of scholars,” which you can change to the adjectival “various scholarly arguments.” By looking for ways to eliminate unnecessary prepositions, your sentences will become more concise and professional.
So, don’t worry preposition-lovers, the takeaway from this lesson is not that prepositions are the fruit of all evil. Prepositions serve a much needed purpose in writing. However, if you use them to the excess, they will poison your language. Watch out for those sentences ending with unnecessary prepositions as well as those sentences that use more than three prepositions at a time. With enough practice it will become second nature to write without stumbling upon prepositions, and then you will be amazed to see the positive change in your writing.