News, tips, and resources from the academic publishing experts at AJE

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!

Share with your colleagues

Share your work as a preprint and help move science forward

We invite you to share your research with the community by posting it online as a preprint. Our sister company, Research Square, is a trusted preprint platform that lets you get credit for your unpublished research early, increase your citations, and get feedback from the community.

Related Articles

Writing a Research Paper for an Academic Journal: A Five-step Recipe for Perfection

Writing Tips

Writing a Research Paper for an Academic Journal: A Five-step Recipe for Perfection

In this article, I will give you the essential information, key points, and resources to keep in mind before you begin the writing process for... Read More »

Tips on Writing in English for Researchers [Video Series]

Writing Tips

Tips on Writing in English for Researchers [Video Series]

Sign up to receive this video series about writing in English. Topics include proper subject-verb agreement, using articles, using the word ‘respectively’, and how to... Read More »

Writing Tips

Editing Tip: Avoiding Sentence Fragments

How to avoid sentence fragments, which could confuse or frustrate readers and reviewers, in your academic writing. Read More »

Stay up to date

Sign up for early access to AJE Scholar articles, discounts on AJE services, and more