Question the Preposition

Question Mark in Lucida Blackletter gold, created by authorRemember when teachers assigned papers by length, and adolescent ideas didn’t stretch that far? Did you turn “Japan exports transistor radios,” into “One of the prime exports of Japan would have to be the small portable appliance known as the transistor radio”? We relied on the passive voice, and padded our prose with prepositional phrases. Our teachers were proud. In most fields, the more college degrees one earns, the better one masters that verbose style.

Well, you’re here to unlearn that. Say it straight. We want to understand and enjoy every word.

Forgot what a preposition is? If you’re so young you never diagrammed a sentence, then you’re also young enough to remember Sesame Street’s lovable monster Grover demonstrating a few prepositions:  “Around, around, around, around, over, and under, and through!” Here’s a more complete list:

Try this. Take your next paragraph and circle all prepositions. Which can be dispatched? Which phrases can be condensed to a word? Which are still necessary for meaning or idiomatic flow? The goal isn’t to avoid all prepositional phrases, only redundant or flabby ones—those adding nothing to your meaning or musical cadence.

Here’s an example. (If you checked out the link above, you’ll recognize the source. To retain the hyperlinks, we’ll rule out one potential excision.)

This is a list of English prepositions. In English, some prepositions are short, typically containing six letters or fewer. There are, however, a significant number of multi-word prepositions. Throughout the history of the English language, new prepositions have come into use, old ones fallen out of use, and the meaning of existing prepositions has changed. Nonetheless, the prepositions are by and large a closed class.

Questioning prepositions and omitting redundancies trims it from 65 words to 35, or 54% of original length, still retaining acceptable prepositions:

In English, most prepositions are short words; some are phrases. Throughout the history of the English language, prepositions have been added or dropped, or have changed meanings, but are now classified as a closed class.

Please share your own revisions here. You can condense your own work or practice on someone else’s academic or corporate prose.

Text © Gwyn Nichols 2010

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