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.”