5 alternatives to clunky prepositional phrases

These multi-word modifiers can clarify your meaning, but they’re not always necessary. Try these tactics to streamline your text.

Are prepositional phrases bogging down your copy?

A prepositional phrase is a series of words beginning with a preposition and providing additional information in a sentence that pertains to position (hence the word preposition) or relationship; the phrase “with a preposition” is itself a prepositional phrase.

Though such phrases are not inherently undesirable, they are often easily avoidable contributors to compositional clutter. This post lists and describes five strategies for eliminating prepositional phrases by omission or alteration.

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1. Use active voice. A prepositional phrase beginning with by often signals an opportunity to convert a passively constructed sentence into active voice (and render it more concise), as when, “The action was seen by observers as nothing more than a delaying tactic,” is revised to, “Observers saw the action as nothing more than a delaying tactic.”

2. Use stronger verbs. Many nouns pertaining to a characteristic or a quality are nominalizations, or buried verbs, which are valid words but should be used in moderation, if at all, because they encourage verbose and overly formal composition. The sentence, “They conducted an investigation of the incident,” for example, becomes more concise when one converts the noun investigation into its verb form and alters the rest of the sentence accordingly: “They investigated the incident.” (This strategy reduces the three-word prepositional phrase by only the preposition itself, but it simplifies—and shortens—what comes before.)

3. Omit modifying phrases. In the sentence, “John Smith is the best runner on the team,” the prepositional phrase “on the team” may already be apparent from the context, so consider omitting it: “John Smith is the best runner.”

4. Use adverbs instead. Just as conversion of a nominalization into a verb can render a prepositional phrase unnecessary, such a phrase can be eliminated by changing an adjective to an adverb and revising the sentence accordingly: “Jane stared at him with a quizzical expression,” becomes, “Jane stared at him quizzically” (or even, by omitting the sentence’s other prepositional phrase, “Jane stared quizzically”).

5. Use genitives. A genitive, or possessive, can substitute for a prepositional phrase beginning with of, as when, “John sensed the annoyance of his teacher when he offered yet another glib excuse,” is revised to, “John sensed his teacher’s annoyance when he offered yet another glib excuse.”

A version of this post first appeared on Daily Writing Tips.


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