Editorial Musings: Overprepositioning

by Gabrielle C. Durham

“Griselda was fighting against the patriarchy the only way she knew – through her unquenchable lust for venison.”

A romance or porn writer I am not, but what should strike you, other than the inappropriate sexualization of wild game, is the utterly superfluous preposition “against.” Why can’t Griselda simply fight the patriarchy? Why fight against? You got me, but the overprepositioning of English is driving me batty.

Why does this bother me? The short answer: Because it’s filler. Overprepositioning is the equivalent of “um, like, you know” without the obvious signposts of verbal dimness. If someone adds prepositions without regard to verbs, with no consideration of whether such appendages are required, then you are in the unsure-footed presence of a mediocre bullshitter. This is a writer who does not care about conventions such as transitive or intransitive verbs, dog-word-piling, or even the linguistic niceties that lubricate our written conventions. No, this writer is a cliché-spewing toad who only warrants pity for being ignored by a merciless editor.

If we were all native Turkish speakers, this would make so much more sense. Turkish is agglutinative, so prepositions are built into all the action. My Turkish friend who speaks English beautifully visibly falters with some predicate constructions. His tendency is to pile on the prepositions. Using prepositions feels so alien to him that he adds them scattershot to sentences. He becomes that hammer who sees every direct object as a nail.

Other instances in which good prepositions become positively Kardashian-esque in their overexposed ubiquity:

Marry with

Protest against

Join with

Focus in on

Escape from

Hide away from

Cancel out

And it wouldn’t surprise me at all to learn of the creation of new prepositions to satisfy our gluttony: “upto” as one word! Scoff all you want, but I think we may be heading down this path of prep-omageddon.

It’s not just me. Other folks have a thought or two about this as well. From American Journal Experts: “[T]he Chicago Manual of Style . . . . 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.” The point that this esteemed colleague makes is that overprepositioning weakens the moral fabric of the universe, and not just as it pertains to verbs.

We do approach an obstacle of sorts when it comes to prepositions that add meaning. The example of “cancel out” is perfect. For example, in equations such as 3 times 1/3, we were taught that 3/1 × 1/3 cancels out the numerators and denominators, leaving the answer 1. Not cancels, as in deletes or removes, but negates. Is this too fine a point? I don’t think so. Sometimes, prepositions do [gulp] add value, but not when applied so arbitrarily as to negate the purported meaning.

It’s easy to spot the groaner or screamer, depending on your temperamental propensities, in a construction such as:

When Ajax joined up with Diamonte, the team became invincible!

Why couldn’t Ajax simply join Diamonte? Again, this is what happens in a world in which few even bother to raise an eyebrow at “Where’s it at?”

The following are sentences with a comic number of prepositions.

When he adds in the cumin, the dish suddenly comes to alive! Literally—the goat starts to hoof off of the plate.

When you are on the outside of the problem looking inside the interior of the issue at hand, you become blind to the bad writing enswirling around you.

Little Willy likes to come out to help his friends to learn to play.

Did you even notice? Or have you become inured? These are silly, but not outside the realm of possibility. The “outside of” bit seems to have hit full preposition-creep status.

Maybe if I take a more catholic and generous approach, I could ascribe the overprepositioning as a step to creating more potent descriptions. Certainly, we do not want to live in Hemingway’s overly Spartan, deserted and windswept word-scape. Other options exist to decorate your writing more beauteously than littering with prepositions indiscriminately, tossing them off as so much flotsam.

I leave it to you. To paraphrase Smokey Bear®: Only you can prevent overprepositioning.