Editing Tip: Avoiding Preposition Overuse
As part of our advice about concise writing, this article shows the problems with too many prepositions in writing and demonstrates how to avoid their overuse.
We previously discussed how to avoid noun string overuse, which may occur when nouns are used as adjectives for the sake of conciseness. However, a different problem may arise when noun string use is minimized: preposition overuse. A string of multiple prepositions in a single sentence can make the text choppy and potentially confusing for your audience, and especially for an international audience.
In particular, the Chicago Manual of Style (subscription required) recommends the use of one preposition per 10-15 words. Another general rule of thumb that is sometimes cited is a maximum of four prepositions per sentence. However, the number of prepositions that is appropriate may be context dependent, so it is preferable to focus on the clarity and flow of a specific sentence.
If you do notice a cumbersome string of prepositions in your writing, various approaches may be used to trim the string:
Replace prepositional phrases with brief noun strings, adverbs, verbs, or possessives
The following sentence contains five prepositions, making the text wordy and choppy:
- The number of colonies observed without delay after culture was a reflection of the efficacy of the drug.
In this case, we can make several changes to improve the sentence’s conciseness:
- “number of colonies” → “colony number” (brief noun string, or an attributive noun plus a noun)
- “without delay” → “immediately” (adverb)
- “was a reflection of” → “reflected” (verb)
- “efficacy of the drug” → “drug’s efficacy” (possessive)
The revised sentence is thus as follows:
- The colony number observed immediately after culture reflected the drug’s efficacy.
This version only contains one preposition (“after”) and reads more fluently. The word count has also decreased from 18 words to 11 words, indicating that addressing preposition overuse may be useful if a manuscript must be within specific word limits. Of course, this is an extreme example of revision; implementing only one or two of the above strategies may have yielded an acceptably clear sentence.
Shorten or remove unnecessary prepositional phrases
Common examples of prepositional phrases that can be abridged include “in order to,” which is often shortened to “to,” and “with regard to,” which can be replaced with “regarding” or “concerning.” You can see more examples in a related article. Alternatively, certain prepositional phrases may be eliminated altogether if they are not critical to the content.
Replace passive voice with active voice
Passive phrasing may also add unnecessary prepositions, in addition to making your writing less engaging. For example, if the above example were written passively, it would read as follows:
- The efficacy of the drug was reflected by the number of colonies observed without delay after culture. (passive)
This sentence construction adds an unnecessary preposition (“by”). Active voice would eliminate this extra preposition:
- The number of colonies observed without delay after culture reflected the efficacy of the drug. (active)
Today’s editing tip has hopefully clarified a few strategies for reducing preposition overuse. Please email us if you have any comments or questions. AJE wishes you the best!