Clearing Barnacles from Your Prose

Barnacles on Boat

Each language has a cadence. Compare “la casa de mi madre” with “my mom’s house.” That musical Spanish phrase illustrates a romance language cadence, relying on prepositional phrases. (Romance: Roman conquerors spawned Latin-based languages.) In English, we have other syntactic options. Many prepositions are necessary, and we can choose “the home of my mother” for literary effect, but most prepositional phrases are merely habitual and verbose.

Those extra words are barnacles, creating drag. Sailors have three approaches: 1) Put the ship in dry dock and scrape. 2) Visit freshwater ports so barnacles die and fall off. (Sorry, Portland, Oregon.) 3) Prevent with barnacle-repelling paints and textures.

We can do the same.

1) Fresh water: Instead of writing, explain your vision, purpose, and world-changing plans to a real or imagined listener and record yourself. Then choose the clearest sentences and the phrases that zing. 

2) Scraping: Nobody escapes. Two editorial skills will improve your writing overnight. Identify passive verbs and reverse them. Identify prepositional phrases and challenge yourself: how many can you condense or omit? Do you need to restore any, like that “house of my mother” on purpose, for style? 

Passive verbs: English basic word order is Subject-Verb-Object. When your subject follows its action, there should be a reason. “The burglary was committed” is correct in police reports, journalism, and situations where you cannot know the subject or the cause is controversial, but a sentence like “the race was won by my neighbor” is better reversed. 

Prepositions: If you have forgotten what they are, remember Sesame Street, where Grover sang, “Over and under and through” and other location prepositions. There are many others, but that is a start.

3) Prevention: Journal or write letters. If you scribble enough when there is no one to impress or you’re addressing a specific person, you strengthen your natural writing voice, making you less likely to reverse subjects and objects unwittingly, or to pad your sentences with meaningless prepositional phrases. 

What’s your favorite tip for writing clearly or revising your way there?

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