300 Days of Better Writing

February 18, 2014

Break up strings of prepositional phrases.


A prepositional phrase begins with a preposition (e.g., of, on, under, around) and ends with the object of a preposition. Consider this sentence.

“The gun was under her pillow.”

In this sentence, the prepositional phrase is “under her pillow.”

When a writer begins to string phrases together, he makes the writing difficult to understand and tedious to read. Consider this sentence.

“The gun was under her pillow on the bed in the room at the back of the house in a small carrying case.”

This sentence has 6 prepositional phrases in a row! Every time a writer starts a new prepositional phrase, the reader needs to revise his mental picture of where the gun is.

Here’s our recommendation: If you have 3 or more prepositional phrases in a string, examine the sentence carefully. Find a way to revise the sentence so this doesn’t occur, or break the sentence into smaller sentences.

Using this tip, we can revise the sample sentence this way.

“The gun was in a small carrying case under her pillow. By keeping it at the back of the house . . . .”

Each sentence now has only 2 prepositional phrases. The second sentence leads to further information, thus keeping the content moving forward, as opposed to simply providing a static description. [We also removed “in a room.” If something is in a house, it must be in a room, so that phrase is unnecessary.]

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