Preposition Overdose May Cause Wordiness
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Words of Wisdom

When a sermon at length comes to an end, people rise and praise God, and they feel the same way after many other speeches.

— John Andrew Holmes

If you’d like to give students a tip for making their prose more clear and less wordy, ask them to watch their prepositions.  When writers desire to convey every minute detail and to sound, well, erudite—a sin that academics, lawyers, bureaucrats, and the like are often prone to commit—they may overdo prepositional phrases. Consider the following examples, taken from student essays but altered to disguise identity:

Perhaps the most common arena for the assessment of students’ knowledge is in the classroom or lecture hall.

The results from this research will add to the current research on the link between practice and writing, reading and writing, and emotion and writing.

Each of the above examples displays wordiness, and excessive prepositional phrases serve as a clue that revision is needed. Once students identify sentences like this, they can apply a few revision strategies to see if they can be improved.

  1. Delete any unnecessary detail.
  2. Determine the main subject of the sentence and recast it as the grammatical subject (that is, clarify who is doing what to whom).

Let’s try that technique with the above examples. The prepositional phrases are underlined and numbered.

Perhaps the most common arena (1) for the assessment (2) of students’ knowledge is (3 ) in the classroom or lecture hall.

Three prepositional phrases in a short sentence may signal trouble. Cutting it down to one is easily achieved by re-focusing the sentence on student knowledge.

Students’ knowledge is most commonly assessed in the classroom or lecture hall.

Now for the second example:

The results (1) from this research will add (2 to the current research  (3) on the link  (4) between practice and writing, reading and writing, and emotion and writing.

The words “research” and “writing” are repeated, which becomes more noticeable once the prepositional phrases are marked. So first, remove unnecessary words.

The results will add (1) to current research (2) on how practice, reading, and emotion are linked (3) to writing.

A small change from four to three prepositional phrases, and the number of words is less. Working through the sentence to  identify the subject-verb-object pattern, one more revision is suggested:

The results will add (1) to current research (2) on how practice, reading, emotion, and writing are linked.

A third example shows that the choice to revise may or may not improve the sentence, depending on the intended focus and rhythm.  In this last example, revising for prepositional phrases alerts the writer to passive voice.

The final embodiment (1) of Uncle Sam was created (2) in 1916 (3) by James Montgomery Flagg.

Reducing the number of prepositional phrases results in an active voice version:

(1) In 1916, James Montgomery Flagg created the final embodiment (2) of Uncle Sam.

Although the revision is shorter, it does shift the emphasis from “final embodiment of Uncle Sam” to “James Montgomery Flagg.” Without further context, deciding which is best is impossible.

There is a glitch in this editing strategy. It turns out many students don’t recognize prepositional phrases.If you need to, send them to the University Writing Center, and we’ll review the basics. The following table, which summarizes common prepositions, may also help.


Common Prepositions
Location in, on, at, among, below, before, between, beyond, next to, through, inside of, underneath, above, behind, beneath, near

along, around, away from, down, from, into, onto, over, past, up, toward

Time In, on, as late as, at, after, before, since, by, to, until, during, for, since