5 Ways to Reduce Use of Prepositions

By Mark Nichol

Prepositions, words that indicate relations between nouns, pronouns, and verbs (mostly small ones like for, in, of, on, to, and with but sometimes more substantial, as in the case of beneath or between), are often integral to a sentence, but writers can clutter sentences by being overly dependent on them. Here are five strategies for minimizing the number of prepositions you use:

1. Eliminate Prepositions by Using Active Voice

Shifting from passive voice to active voice, as in the revision of “The watch was obviously designed by a master craftsman” to “A master craftsman had obviously designed the watch” takes a preposition out of action. (But take care that the inversion of the sentence structure doesn’t incorrectly shift emphasis or diminish dramatic effect.)

2. Substitute an Adverb for a Prepositional Phrase

In the writer’s toolbox, adverbs are stronger tools than prepositional phrases. Revision of the sentence “The politician responded to the allegations with vehemence” to “The politician responded vehemently to the allegations” strengthens the thought and deletes the weak preposition with.

3. Use a Genitive in Place of a Prepositional Phrase

An easy test to help reduce the number of prepositions is to search for the genitive case, or a possessive form: If a sentence could use the genitive case but doesn’t, revise the sentence.

For example, “She was disturbed by the violent images in the movie” gains more impact (and loses a preposition) by reversing the sentence’s subject and object: “She was disturbed by the movie’s violent images.” (Combine this strategy with a shift from passive voice to active voice, and you jettison two prepositions and further strengthen the statement: “The movie’s violent images disturbed her.”)

Another use of this technique is to revise a phrase including a reference to a location within a location, as in “the Museum of Modern Art in New York City,” which can be more actively and efficiently rendered as “New York City’s Museum of Modern Art.”

4. Omit Prepositions by Eliminating Nominalizations

Writers and editors aid clarity and conciseness by uncovering nominalizations, otherwise known as buried, or smothered, verbs. In doing so, they also negate the need for a preposition.

For example, the sentence “Their attempt to provide a justification of the expense was unsuccessful,” simplified to “Their attempt to justify the expense was unsuccessful,” not only transforms the verb+article+nominalization clump “provide a justification” into the streamlined verb justify but also makes of unnecessary. (I originally wrote “but also makes the use of of unnecessary,” but then deleted the superfluous phrase “the use of” and thereby deleted a preposition.)

5. Delete Prepositional Phrases

Prepositional phrases (preposition+article+noun) provide context, but they’re not always necessary. In a sentence like “The best outcome for this scenario would be an incremental withdrawal,” note whether the meaning is clear without the phrase, and if so, strike it out: “The best outcome would be an incremental withdrawal.”

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16 Responses to “5 Ways to Reduce Use of Prepositions”

  • Razibul Hassan

    Thanks for the fabulous post. Reducing the number of preposition used in a sentence not only make it easier for the reader to grasp, but it also improves the writing style. The very common practice is to substitute the adverbs for preposition phrase . Using active voice is not possible always as to better emphasize the context, but other 4 ways mentioned here are really worth practicing for a better effective writing.

  • Leif G.S. Notae

    Great post Mark, I have to admit it took me a while to get over some of the prepositions I used as a crutch but there are sometimes I tend to forget. Nice little refresher, I will chew on this at work. Thanks for this piece!

  • Toby

    “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”

    The Apes’ Planet Rises.

  • Michael C. Cordell

    On #4, why not eliminate the passivity while you’re at it? Instead of “Their attempt to justify the expense was unsuccessful,” write “They failed to justify the expense.” This simplifies the sentence even more, too.

    -Michael

  • Precise Edit

    Here are a few more strategies that we use:

    1. Remove prepositional phrases by using adjectives
    Ex: changes to the global economy >> global economic changes

    2. Use indirect objects rather than prepositional phrases
    Ex: I’ll build a house for you >> I’ll build you a house

    3. Replace prepositional phrases with adverbs (similar to #2)
    Ex: A number of people >> Some people

    And we always try to change nominalizations into active verbs, as a general rule of practice.

  • Qasim

    Heartfelt thanks for this interesting subject. I am looking forward to seeing more subjects like this especially those concerning the use of articles, relative clauses….etc.

  • Cecily

    Precise Edit: I’m not convinced about your #2. Some people see such constructions as obfuscation (I wouldn’t be surprised if there is an article about it on this very website), and your shorter version is certainly harder for non-native speakers to understand.

  • Precise Edit

    @Cecily

    True. In any writing endeavor, one must consider the audience. This is but one strategy we use. As with any writing strategy, it may not be appropriate in every case.

    Here’s an example of the same strategy:
    Mary threw the ball to John. >> Mary threw John the ball.

    And another:
    She brought a box to me. >> She brought me a box.

    Here’s a place where it might not be appropriate:
    Frank kicked a field goal for his screaming fans. >> Frank kicked his screaming fans a field goal.

    And another:
    I took the picture of her to the police. >> I took the police the picture of her.

  • Chezron

    LOVE the Daily Writing Tips! Somewhere along the way I never developed a good grasp on the rules of grammar. I have been trying to change this, and your column is wonderful! Thank you very much!

  • Cecily

    Precise Edit: I agree that audience and context are paramount and we’re in the realms of style rather than grammar, but even so, in most of your examples, I prefer the first.

    In particular (partly because of where the words wrap), “Frank kicked his screaming fans…” is what is sometimes nicknamed a garden path sentence, because you have to revise your interpretation as you get to the end of the sentence.

  • Cecily

    SO SORRY. I somehow overlooked your crucial “Here’s a place where it might not be appropriate”.

    (Even so, I still tend to prefer the others.)

  • Gregory Stenson

    Excellent examples and illustrations.

  • Ellie Ann

    Great post, Jami! Thanks for the help. 🙂

  • Tahlia Newland

    I enjoyed the article and tried to subscribe but got an error message.

  • Lilian

    Thanks so much for this more-than-super article. I’ve decided to print it and keep near my p.c., to consult whenever I write or correct my work. I know it’ll give my writing a different slant.

  • Lunar Hine

    Thanks, Mark. I’ve been writing forever, but still need someone to remind me what a preposition is occasionally, and I’m new to ‘smothered verbs’ – what a great phrase, and a good mnemonic.

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