Betcha don’t think you’re making prepositional phrase mistakes in your copy. Most people don’t. And, the people I’ve trained didn’t. But, once I showed them these mistakes, the light bulb went on. Ready for your prepositional phrase ah-ha moment? Read on.
What is a Preposition?
Prepositions precede a noun or pronoun (the object) in a prepositional phrase. They express a relationship between the object and another word in a sentence. Preposition phrases can function as adverbs as adverbial phrases. Or, they can function as adjectives in adjectival phrases.
Most Common Prepositions
Top 5 Prepositional Phrase Mistakes in Copy
1. Stringing a Bunch of Prepositional Phrases Together
As a young writer, I was a big believer in prepositional phrases. They made my writing descriptive. They made my sentences longer. But, most of all, my teachers were happy that I’d avoided the same old subject + verb sentence construction. Unfortunately, I learned many bad habits with prepositional phrase mistakes.
But, then I grew up, and my writing matured. Once I started grading papers and editing copy, I realized that prepositional phrases were about as useless as adverbs. So, I edited my copy to rid it of prepositional phrase mistakes and taught my students to use them judiciously. Now, I couldn’t get rid of all of them, but the ones that waste space, I did. Here’s why.
We write the way we think, stringing ideas together, one after another. Revising and editing change our information-dump first draft into a polished copy. If you don’t believe me, try grading a few middle school English papers. You’ll soon see kids tack everything on to the end of a sentence. I could always tell the ones who didn’t edit their drafts. Slogging through a sentence to get to the point makes this writing teacher cranky.
And, most adults do the same. Why do we do it?
As writers, our ideas reach the page in strings exactly as we think them.
As writers, our ideas come out in strings exactly as we think them.
Combine those two, and you end up with lots of prepositional phrases at the ends of sentences.
Don’t believe me? When’s the last time you’ve had that GREAT IDEA. You know, the one that wakes you up at night? Well, that idea comes out in a jumble. So you reach for the trusty nightstand notepad and write it all down. You don’t want to forget one tiny bit of it. It’s the best idea ever! But, you wake up the next morning to find that you need to expand the idea and revise it.
Or, how about this? Remember these: a five-paragraph essay, a ten-page research paper, or a 1000 word short story? I’m sure you had that kind of assignment. A guy I know wrote a ten-page research paper on the weather. He stuck baseball scores in the middle of it, and guess what? He got a B because it was 10 pages. I’m not kidding!
Heck, as an English teacher I assigned so many five-paragraph essays, I tend to write in 5 paragraph bursts! Adding a length requirement to a writing assignment makes us write for length, not brevity and concise ideas.
So, Writing for length makes for very long copy. Writing for brevity creates clear copy. And, since we think in strings, we tend to write very long sentences with the main point at the end. That’s where prepositional phrases do their most damage to your copy. Look at the examples below.
Bad Copy: The young girl was in the kitchen eating a sandwich with peanut butter and jelly with her dog under the table.
Great Copy: In the kitchen, the girl ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Under the table, her dog drooled.
The bad copy sentence consists of 18 words and has 4 prepositional phrases at the end: “in the kitchen”, “with her dog”, “under the table”, and “with peanut butter and jelly”. Sentence one confuses the reader. Is the dog eating the PBJ? Is the girl under the table? The bad copy is so long, the reader gets lost along the way. The great copy is two sentences and consists of 19 words. However, it paints a better picture for the reader.
Lots of prepositional phrases at the ends of sentences confuse the reader. Doing so makes them wade through a bunch of useless words to get to the point when a simple revision could fix the problem.
2. Modifying with Prepositional Phrases
Prepositional phrases act as adjectives and adverbs, so they modify the meaning of that word. If you’re modifying a word in your copy, then you’re using the wrong word.
Bad Copy: The runner got to the finish line.
Great Copy: The runner reached the finish line.
In the bad copy, the prepositional phrase “to the finish line” tells where the runner “got”. Got is a boring word. It doesn’t convey any meaning or pass along any feeling. So, we try to fix it with a prepositional phrase.
Changing to a stronger verb, your writing will convey a stronger message. The right word will make the reader feel. “Got” means he made it there; “reached” means he struggled to make it there. A stronger feeling means a better connection with the reader.
Beware of turning the object of the prepositional phrase into an adverb. Adverbs modify and weaken verbs. Again, if you have to modify a word, then you’re using the wrong word.
Bad Copy: He spoke with hesitation about the plane crash.
Bad but Corrected Copy: He spoke hesitantly about the plane crash.
Great Copy: The plane crash topic unnerved him.
As you can see in the great copy sentence, unnerved is a much stronger verb that makes you feel for the guy who was in the plane crash.
Bad Copy: The dog with spots ran away.
Great Copy: The spotted dog ran away.
The bad copy sentence uses the prepositional phrase “with spots” to modify the word “dog”. Although I can see the dog has spots in my mind’s eye, the bad copy sentence put it after “the dog”. The reader has to reevaluate what the dog looks like once s/he gets to that phrase.
But, in the great copy sentence, I’ve taken the object of the preposition and turned it into a participle. The great copy sentence describes the dog first so as not to confuse the reader. The sentence conveys a stronger meaning without using an adjectival phrase to modify the noun.
Now, the bad copy sentence is simplistic for explanation purposes. But, if you’ve ever been in the middle of a sentence and have no idea what the writer is saying, then the writer didn’t take the time to revise.
3. Using Prepositional Phrases to Show Possession
When a prepositional phrase immediately follows a noun, it will often show possession. This prepositional phrase mistake construction confuses the reader. They have to figure out who owns what, instead of it being very clear.
Bad Copy: The owner of the new Cadillac is very happy with his new car.
Great Copy: The new Cadillac owner is ecstatic.
Bad Copy: In the presence of Bob, we only talk about golf.
Great Copy: In Bob’s presence, golf is the only topic.
When you move the object of the preposition in front of the noun, your writing is clear. We know who owns what without doing mental gymnastics. Knowing what to look for will keep you from confusing your reader. The most common preposition phrase offender is the word “of”.
4. Using Prepositional Phrases and the Passive Voice
If your prepositional phrase starts with “by”, chances are you’re writing in the passive voice. Passive voice changes who’s doing the action in a sentence. The sentence’s subject does not act; the object acts.
Bad Copy: My first road trip will always be a great time remembered by my friends and me.
Great Copy: My friends and I will always remember our first road trip.
Bad Copy: The ice cream was eaten by the kids.
Great Copy: The kids ate the ice cream.
Bad Copy: I was left at home by my mom.
Great Copy: My mom left me at home.
We don’t think in the passive voice; we think in the active voice. But, unfortunately, many writers write in the passive voice. They don’t take the time to revise their copy and change it to a more active, engaging language.
5. Adding Too Many Prepositional Phrases and Wordiness
Prepositional phrases mistakes make your writing wordy. With all those ideas tacked on to the end of your sentences, it sounds like streams of consciousness. The reader does not want to float in your streams of consciousness. They want an engaging copy. And, if you write for a living, clear copy sells. So, each time you write a prepositional phrase, you have to ask yourself if you need it. Chances are you don’t. Since they act as adjectives and adverbs, they just take up space and weaken your copy.
So there you have it. Search out each prepositional phrase and ask, “Do I really need this phrase?” If you don’t, then you’ll be able to avoid these five prepositional phrase mistakes.