How to Arrange (and Rearrange) Prepositional Phrases

Expanding the Basic Sentence Unit

Rearranging Prepositional Phrases
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Prepositional phrases act like adjectives and adverbs to add meaning to nouns and verbs. They can also be arranged to be more effective, or condensed or eliminated to cut the clutter. Here's how:

Arranging Prepositional Phrases

A prepositional phrase often appears after the word it modifies:

A spaceship from Venus landed in my back yard.

However, like adverbs, prepositional phrases that modify verbs can also be found at the very beginning or very end of a sentence:

In the morning, the Venusians mowed my lawn.
The Venusians mowed my lawn in the morning.

In both versions, the prepositional phrase in the morning modifies the verb mowed.

Rearranging Prepositional Phrases

Not all phrases are this flexible, and so we need to be careful not to confuse our readers by misplacing a prepositional phrase:

The Venusians swam for two hours after lunch in my pool.

This arrangement gives the idea that the visitors from Venus enjoyed lunch in the pool. If this is not the case, try moving one of the phrases:

After lunch, the Venusians swam for two hours in my pool.

The best arrangement is one that's both clear and uncluttered.

Unpacking Prepositional Phrases

Although several prepositional phrases may appear in the same sentence, avoid packing in so many phrases that you confuse the reader. The sentence below, for example, is cluttered and awkward:

On a rickety stool in one corner of the crowded honky tonk, the folk singer sits playing lonesome songs on his battered old guitar about warm beer, cold women, and long nights on the road.

In this case, the best way to break up the string of phrases is to make two sentences:

On a rickety stool in one corner of the crowded honky tonk, the folk singer sits hunched over his battered old guitar. He plays lonesome songs about warm beer, cold women, and long nights on the road.

Keep in mind that a long sentence isn't necessarily an effective sentence.

PRACTICE: Rearranging Prepositional Phrases
Break up the long string of phrases in the sentence below by creating two sentences. Be sure to include all of the details contained in the original sentence.

Up and down the coast the line of the forest is drawn sharp and clean in the brilliant colors of a wet blue morning in spring on the edge of a seascape of surf and sky and rocks.

Eliminating Needless Modifiers

We can improve our writing by using adjectives, adverbs, and prepositional phrases that add to the meaning of sentences. We can also improve our writing by eliminating modifiers that add nothing to the meaning. A good writer doesn't waste words, so let's cut the clutter.

The following sentence is wordy because some of the modifiers are repetitious or insignificant:

Wordy: The steward was really a very friendly and agreeable man, quite round, rotund, and sleek, with a very costly set of dimples around his terribly pleasant smile.

We can make this sentence more concise (and thus more effective) by cutting out the repetitious and overworked modifiers:

Revised: The steward was an agreeable man, rotund, and sleek, with a costly set of dimples around his smile.
(Lawrence Durrell, Bitter Lemons)

PRACTICE: Cutting the Clutter
Make this sentence more concise by eliminating needless modifiers:

It was a rainy morning, dull, wet, and gray, in the early part of the month of December.

Common Prepositions