Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Ever start the day with a list of jobs and thank your lucky stars for the easy one? That small, two-minutes-to-fix problem that lets you scratch something off your list and score an easy win that’ll help when things get harder? Well, it’s your lucky day, because that’s exactly what the preposition problem is for authors.
While talk of prepositions can make some writers blanch, they’re a relatively simple building block of writing, and it’ll only take a couple of tips to make them your friends. As an editor, I can tell you that almost all authors have some degree of problem with their prepositions, and I can also recommend an easy solution that can stop that being the case.
First, though, it’s time for a refresher.
What are prepositions?
Even if you couldn’t describe or categorize them, you use prepositions every day. My advice doesn’t depend on knowing everything about prepositions, but it’s worth taking a minute to get reacquainted.
Prepositions indicate the relationship between words or terms, usually by communicating relative location. This can mean position, time, possession, purpose or the method of an act.
The duck was under the hat, the hat was beneath a garbage can, and the garbage can was behind a steel door, and yet we could all still hear the demonic quacking.
The witch-burning is on Tuesday at 7am, right after yoga.
He’s an acquaintance of mine.
We did it because we had to, and for the good of every golfer in the club.
We traveled to Harrogate by horse, going the whole way without speaking because of all those highwaymen, and the tension they bring.
Prepositions are usually single words (with, by, on, in, at, to and about are the go-to examples), but they don’t have to be: on top of, in addition to and next to, for example. There’s a lot more to them, of course, but not much you absolutely need to know to write well. Just in case, here’s what purports to be a complete list of prepositions, and here’s a more in-depth primer.
So that’s what we’re dealing with – a tiny but vital part of language that you use with incredible frequency. It’s easy to see, now, why a small problem might be worth fixing.
What’s my preposition problem?
There are actually three preposition problems facing authors, and we’ll deal with each in turn. Happily, though, the first two have the same solution.
Problem 1: Unnecessary prepositions
Unnecessary prepositions make sentences clumsier and less enjoyable to read. What do I mean by unnecessary prepositions? Well, there are two types.
Type 1 – Words that can be cut
‘Of’ is the main offender, here:
The cow is inside of the barn. → The cow is inside the barn.
She threw it out of the window! → She threw it out the window!
Where did you all go to? → Where did you all go?
Break it down into smaller steps. → Break it into smaller steps.
Type 2 –Phrases that can be replaced by words
We can’t do that at this point in time. → We can’t do that now.
We made our way to town by way of the train. → We went to town by train.
I gave some support to my mother. → I supported my mother.
Unnecessary prepositions tend to crop up when authors are overly concerned with being understood – they really want the reader to know what they mean, so they over-explain. This means that your first draft is likely to be littered with unnecessary prepositions.Unnecessary prepositions are cluttering up your novel – root them out. Click To Tweet
Trying to stop yourself writing unnecessary prepositions is a fool’s errand, at least in the long run. The key is to catch them as you edit and redraft (though doing so will condition you to spot them sooner, and they’ll become less of a problem as you progress).
So how can you find unnecessary prepositions? Are you meant to comb through every sentence, seeing if you can rewrite it in a shorter, smoother form? Well, yes, ideally, but there’s an easier method. Happily, it also solves the next preposition problem, so I’ll cover that first.
Problem 2: Misused prepositions
As you rush to write a story, it’s easy to write down the wrong preposition. Many prepositions depend on precise context, and it’s easy to make a mistake when you’re rushing ahead with a great idea. Did your character build a fort ‘during’ summer or ‘over’ summer? Even identifying the information you need to make the call takes a moment, so it’s no surprise that this is such a common error.
This is especially the case when English isn’t your first language, but I’ve yet to edit a full-length work where there wasn’t at least one instance of a misused preposition that you’d spot straight away if someone said it aloud.
We got in the train. → We got on the train.
We stood on the field. → We stood in the field.
She ran at the building. → She ran towards the building.
We rode with elephants. → We rode on elephants / We rode elephants.
The problem is that your first-draft self writes the wrong preposition and then, by merit of being on the page, that preposition gains some undeserved authority. Second-draft you is more careful: they’d never make that mistake, but since it’s already there, they’re more likely to accept it or miss it entirely.Misusing prepositions is an easy problem to fix. Click To Tweet
This is exactly the kind of job that editors are perfectly suited to carry out – they come to the page fresh, not having read the same misused preposition fifty times, and it sticks out like a sore thumb. There is, however, something you can do to spot it for yourself.
I said earlier that, as an author, you’ll end up using incorrect or unnecessary prepositions that you’d never say aloud. Well, that’s the solution: read your work aloud.
This is something I’ve covered before, in Why Reading Aloud Will Dramatically Improve Your Writing, so I won’t belabor it here. Suffice to say that reading your work aloud makes it less familiar, and cues you to reassess language as you speak it. You’ll say your odd preposition out loud and instantly know what you should have said instead.
This may sound like a lot of work, but reading aloud won’t just catch prepositions, and I’d suggest that every author does it at least once (and many more times for their dialogue, which is meant to be spoken out loud in the first place). If you only have the time and/or inclination to read your work out once, do it late in the process, when you’ve nailed down most of your writing. All kinds of odd little errors will float off the page, ready for you to snatch them out of the air.
So that’s the solution for problems 1 and 2, but why won’t it work for problem 3? Well, that’s because problem 3 isn’t really a problem…
Problem 3: Ending sentences with prepositions
It’s common knowledge that you can’t end a sentence with a preposition. Such sentences are incorrect, and verboten for the serious author.
What did you put it on? → On what did you put it?
Where did these people come from? → From where did these people come?
Oh, so that’s what I stepped in. → Oh, so that’s the thing in which I stepped.
Except here’s the thing: the corrected sentences above sound stupid. In fact, it’s fine to end a sentence with a preposition, and most of us do it at some point. The idea that you shouldn’t end a sentence with a preposition is a carryover from Latin, kept alive by overeager critics of the written word.
What’s more (like most grammar rules), it’s never actually been a universally accepted rule. It’s not as if we ever lived in a grammatopia where infinitives remained unsplit and no preposition was ever allowed to mingle with a period.Which prepositions can you end a sentence with? The answer might surprise you. Click To Tweet
Whether grammar is meant to tell us what to do or explain what we’re already doing is a debate for another time (specifically, this article), but in the case of prepositions, it doesn’t matter – authors can and should end sentences with prepositions. The ‘rule’ against this is something of a bogeyman, and tends to come up as an easy way to criticize sentences that are poorly or densely phrased. Grammar Girl even calls it one of her ‘top ten grammar myths’.
There’s a lot of fear around it – since it’s so commonly broken, many authors aren’t sure what the ‘rule’ is, and whether they’re getting it wrong – but even experts tend to ignore it in everyday writing, as depicted in The Perry Bible Fellowship comic strip, ‘Grammar Wizard’.
– The Perry Bible Fellowship, ‘Grammar Wizard’
There are even types of sentence where you should end with a preposition, but it’s enough to know that this problem, at least, isn’t one you have to worry about. In fact, you can even turn it to your advantage.
What can prepositions do for my writing?
Just because you can end your sentence with a preposition doesn’t always mean you should – rephrasing a sentence in accordance with this rule strikes a formal, even academic, tone. It’s a simple thing you can do to dialogue to make a character seem well-spoken, or something you can adopt in your narration to make it seem more distant and detached.
You can create a similar effect by choosing particular prepositions – using ‘aboard’ rather than ‘on’, or ‘atop’ rather than ‘on top of’ strikes a particular tone that complements period pieces, somber descriptions, and even whimsical writing. Steampunk authors, especially, should try playing around with their prepositions.
One of the hardest parts of writing dialogue is ensuring that every character has a distinct voice (or at least that they don’t all speak in the same way). Being aware of prepositions, and especially where they’re used to end a sentence, is an easy way of making sure two characters have their own voices. It’s also a surefire way to sell your butler/emperor/academic character.
Your preposition position
You don’t have to dedicate much time to prepositions to get the most out of them, and a little increased awareness is a worthwhile reward for the time you’ll invest. When a sentence is tripping up the reader, or doesn’t sound quite right, adjusting your prepositions will often be the answer, and reading aloud will help clear up anything you missed.
If you’d like to weigh in on the purpose of grammar, defend the practice of ending sentences with a preposition, or point out the, um, deliberate mistakes I made in my explanation, let me know in the comments. Or, for more on how to improve your writing, check out How To Improve Your Writing By Cutting Eight Words, Here’s How To Vary Your Sentence Structure and Four Secrets That Will Turn You Into An Objective Editor.