Tips for Concision: 5. Eliminate excessive prepositions

Eliminate excessive prepositions.

One way to lengthen a sentence is to stack up prepositional phrases, especially using of. With too many prepositions, writing lacks flow. It’s also longer. Count the prepositions in this sentence—they’re conveniently highlighted:

There is no current estimate of the number of boxes of records in the possession of the school.

The sentence has five prepositions among its 18 words. That’s not an error, but it’s choppy. So when you edit, tune your ear for excessive prepositions and cut the ones you can. In this example, we can cut at least two and possibly three, reducing sentence length from 18 to 15 or even 14:

There is no current estimate of the number of boxes of records the school possesses.

We have no current estimate of how many boxes of records the school possesses.

Eliminating excessive prepositions is a well recommended technique for improving prose:

  • “Multiple prepositional phrases will affect the vigor of your writing.” Megan McAlpin, Beyond the First Draft 55 (2014).
  • “Reducing the ofs by 50% or so can greatly improve briskness and readability.” Bryan A. Garner, Legal Writing in Plain English 51 (2d ed. 2013).
  • “Look closely at any sentence that depends heavily on prepositions, and if you count more than three phrases in a row, consider revising.” Claire Kehrwald Cook, Line by Line 8 (1985).

Here’s another example:

A knowledge of correct trial procedures is the duty of all of the members of the bar of this state.

This sentence has five prepositional phrases in 21 words. And you’ll agree, I hope, that it’s an awkward little thing. But now we have better terminology; we don’t just say it’s awkward, we say it has excessive prepositions. When we edit, we focus on removing them:

All state-bar members must know correct trial procedure.

That’s concision.


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