Pesky Prepositions: Small Words that Raise Big Questions

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Prepositions are about as ordinary as words get. We use them all the time, in practically every sentence. They’re short words, averaging two to four letters long, that don’t draw much attention to themselves. In fact, they’re often barely noticed by readers. But to writers, prepositions matter. They link sentence parts together and help show the relationship between the parts. They give readers a better sense of time, place, and movement. And they add flow and readability to our work.

At the same time, though, prepositions can make us writers stumble, second guess ourselves, and scratch our heads over what to do with them. As small as they are, prepositions can raise big questions—questions that are far more common than you’d think:

Is it okay to end a sentence with a preposition?

There seems to be an unwritten rule that you should never end a sentence with a preposition. It isn’t true. You can—and sometimes should—end a sentence with a preposition. The proper question is when is it okay to end a sentence with a preposition?

Grammarians and style guides will give you all kinds of advice. Some say only in informal writing; others believe you can do it in any writing. Still others say end a sentence with a preposition if there’s no other way around it. So who’s right? They all are. Basically, it boils down to you, the writer. If your sentence reads well, makes sense, and delivers the meaning you intended with a preposition at the end, leave well enough alone. Sometimes, rearranging a sentence to get the preposition off the end makes the sentence too awkward—and that can weaken the writing.

Of course, when you’re writing for a reader or audience that holds to strict grammar rules and you don’t want to stir up controversy, stick to the old-fashioned rule.

Should I capitalize prepositions in a title?

Now this question seems like it would have a straightforward yes or no answer—and if I had to give you one, I’d answer with a “yes.” But then I’d waver a bit, add “usually” and then “but not always.” Basically, the answer lies in the style guide you happen to be following. For me, it’s Chicago, and Chicago says to lowercase all prepositions . . . in most cases. The exception? When a preposition is part of an adjective or adverb phrase, like “Off Road” or “Back Up,” or a Latin expression, like “In Vitro.”

Not everyone follows Chicago, though. Some writers, for example, are directed to capitalize prepositions that have five or more letters in a title. Sometimes, it depends on the type of title—whether it be a book title, a journal title, or a subtitle—or the case (sentence or title case). Bottom line? When it comes to capitalizing titles with prepositions, follow guidelines not your gut.

Am I using the right preposition?

Which preposition to use can be particularly troublesome because people often interchange prepositions when they speak. Is it “steps for eating healthier” or “steps to eating healthier”? I’ve heard and seen both. How about “concerned with her manner” and “concerned by her manner”? Same thing. So how do you decide?

Figuring out which preposition to use might take some analyzing—and a peek inside your dictionary. Prepositions have general meanings that can help you determine if they’re fitting for a particular phrase. For example, “by” more commonly shows cause, while “with” shows the object of a feeling. “Concerned with her manner” makes better sense, then, than “concerned by her manner.”

Logic plays a part when choosing the proper preposition, too. Ask yourself, what makes the most sense? Which preposition conveys the meaning best? What would a reader understand? If you still can’t decide, take the easy road out and rewrite the phrase. “Steps for eating healthier,” for example, can be changed to “ways to eat healthy.”

Is this preposition necessary?

Clutter in writing is a common problem, and prepositions are a common culprit. Often, a preposition doesn’t need to be there. “Where did you find this at?” is one instance. Remove the “at,” and the sentence makes just as much sense, with one less word. Likewise, “she was honored by the dean of the school” could be written “She was honored by the school’s dean” or, better yet, “The school’s dean honored her.”

I’m not saying you should try to eliminate every preposition you can. Prepositions have a place and purpose in writing. But they are so familiar and simple to use that writers often overdo them. If you can remove a preposition or prepositional phrase without doing any damage to context and readability, then do. Your writing will be cleaner, clearer, and more concise.

Prepositions are tricky words for sure. But with a few questions answered, you can use them exactly how they were meant to be used—to help make sentences the best they can be.

Looking for more help with style and grammar issues? Download my e-book No Average Writer: How to Stand Out in the Writing Crowd and Write Your Best.

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