Use Prepositions Thoughtfully

ntrary to what Miss Grindle may have told you in the fifth grade, you will not die from ending a sentence with a preposition.  However, if you entangle your reader with too many prepositions, you may lose his attention.

A preposition is anywhere a rat can run. (The only exception to this is of.)  For example, a rat can run:

about, above, across, after, against, along, among, around, before, behind, below, beneath, beside, between, beyond, by, down, during, except, for, from, until, from, in, into, like, of, off, over ,through, to, toward, under, up, with, without

And all of these are prepositions.

Prepositions connect pieces of information in a sentence with amazing agility.  Therein lies both their strength and their weakness.  They are so handy that they enable business writers to compose gems like the following sentence, which was submitted as a writing sample from a participant in one of our writing workshops. (He wrote it before he took the class.)

Consolidated accounts receivable totaled $22,232M with $1677M or 7.4%  in excess of 90 days from invoice date compared to accounts receivable totaling $19,333M with $1,135M or 5.8% in excess of 90 days from invoice date at 12/31/05.

Of the 37 words in the sentence, 10 are prepositions.  Ideally, sentences should contain an average of from 10 to 17 words, so this writer was in trouble already. Each preposition begins a short phrase that makes the sentence fatter and fatter.

Prepositional phrases are often the culprits when sentences are so convoluted that even the people who wrote them cannot figure out what they originally meant to say.  These little rascals seduce you into writing longer sentences by enabling you to pad more and more information between the capital letter and the period. The above sentence could have been written as several shorter sentences:

Consolidated accounts receivable totaled $22,232M.  Of this amount, $1677M (7.4%) was in excess of 90 days from invoice date.  In comparison, accounts receivable at 12/31/05 totaled $19,333M.  Of this amount,  $1,135M (5.8%) was in excess of 90 days from invoice date.

Note that the edited version still has ten prepositional phrases. The difference is that the information is now contained in four sentences rather than one.  We are no longer weighing down a single sentence with the burden of ten chunks of extra data.

Prepositions add length to your sentences without adding strength.  The power of your sentence lies in the subject (main noun) and the predicate (main verb).  The core meaning of your sentence should be conveyed in these fundamental sentence elements.  The prepositional phrases add details.  Don’t bury important information in prepositional phrases. Remember, prepositional phrases are weak.  If your information is important, make it part of the grammatical core of the sentence.

Getting back to Miss Grindle, it is not generally a good idea to end a sentence with a preposition – unless it is.  If your sentence reads more gracefully or is more understandable with the preposition at the end, then put the preposition at the end.  An apocryphal story about Winston Churchill may clarify this point.  Sir Winston sent a draft of a speech to a subordinate for review.  This fellow sent his boss a memo noting that the speech contained a sentence that ended with a preposition, and suggesting that the sentence be changed.  Churchill shot back a note saying, “This is the kind of nonsense up with which I will not put.”