Cut the Clutter: Watch Out for Boxcars!

Sometimes, when I stop for a passing train, I’m reminded of prepositional phrases. For me, boxcars are a metaphor for them. As the cars rattle past, I imagine a long sentence coupled together with one prepositional phrase after another. Of course, we need to use them, but if we have too many strung together like boxcars our prose suffers. It sounds choppy, even mechanical and forced, and makes for uninteresting reading.

What is a prepositional phrase? It’s a phrase that begins with a preposition (a word that shows movement or direction) and ends with a noun or pronoun.

A few examples: on, in, into, onto, of, at, etc. More can be found online or in a good grammar book.

Let’s look at a sentence to see what I mean.

Julie sat at her desk beside a window and looked out it to see a swallow flapping in a nest in a tree beside a brook. (6 prepositional phrases/26 words)

  1. at her desk
  2. beside a window
  3. out it
  4. in a nest
  5. in a tree
  6. beside a brook

Revision:

Julie sat at her desk and looked out her window to see a swallow enjoying her treetop nest beside a brook. (3 prepositional phrases/21 words)

In this revision, after a little thought, I was able to reduce my prepositional phrases from six to three as well as make the sentence more concise by cutting out five words.

When to Keep Prepositional Phrases in Our Sentences

  1. When they’re necessary for sentence clarity.
  2. When we want to slow down our story’s pace

Rule of Thumb: Whenever we can revise to delete them, do so. Use them, but try to keep them to a minimum. Too many prepositional phrases strung together like boxcars on a train clutter our prose.

Try This Exercise

The sentence below has five prepositional phrases in italics. How many can you revise?  I’d love to see your revisions in the comments.

Doris knocked on the door before she stepped into the house with a basket full of flowers to give to her grandmother.

SEE ALSO: Edit Strings of Prepositional Phrases – Writing Commons