Pruning Prepositions

Winter pruning of an apple tree with secateurs.

How many times have writers heard, “Using strong verbs and nouns makes good writing”? Yet, how many times have we heard, “Overuse of prepositions makes bad writing”? It does. Prepositions are essential to proper English usage. They show a relationship between words within a sentence. However, flinging them onto the page uncensored leads to sloppy, a.k.a. “bad,” writing. Prepositions must be controlled.

Gardeners prune trees to eliminate dead or diseased branches and prevent overcrowding, allowing healthy growth. The purpose of pruning prepositions in writing is similar:

  • Cut the dead weight.
  • Cut the overcrowdedness.
  • Leave the good stuff.

Consider this sentence:

John Doe, one of three teachers in the SmallTown USA school district acquitted of providing answers to students taking a test, stood by his classroom door in the hall of the science building near the west end of the campus. John had dressed in suit and tie and would soon be allowed to return to his old desk on the third floor.

That sentence contains lot of dead weight and overcrowding. When tree branches overlap due to overcrowding, they can rub against eachother and cause damage. When sentences contain dead weight, they rub against the reader’s nerves, forcing them to throw books.

There are exceptions to every writing “rule,” of course. For example, the deliberate repetition “of the people, by the people, for the people.” However, sentences with strong nouns and verbs produce clearer, cleaner writing. Overuse of prepositional phrases reduces clarity and damages sentence flow.

It would be impossible to write without prepositions, of course. When we prune branches, we don’t cut down the entire tree. So, how many is too many? Eliminate as many as possible, but a good rule of thumb is that most sentences can bear up to three prepositional phrases. After that, they are usually dead weight and should be pruned.

Until Next Time,

Happy Blogging!

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