Overuse Of Prepositions

Winston Churchill once described prepositions as an enormously versatile part of grammar, as in "What made you pick this book I didn't want to be read to out of up for?" I guess it takes a special talent to construct a sentence that ends with five prepositions in a row. At the same time, it takes a special skill to grasp such messages on first reading.

Prepositions are connecting links showing a relationship between the object of the preposition and the modifying prepositional sentence. Therefore, clear communication would not be possible without prepositions, but scientific writers often use them too liberally because rewording of the sentence would mean a special effort. In fact, many a writing expert would insist that the overuse of prepositions in scientific writing is the single most important cause of confused messages.

There are approximately 70 prepositions in the English language. They can be broadly classified as prepositions of time and date, movement, location, or limitation, as shown in Table 5.1.

PUTTING IT NICELY: STYLE | 71

Table 5.1 Types of Prepositions

TYPE OF PREPOSITION

EXAMPLES

Time/date

at, by, on, before, in, from, since, for, during, to, until, after

Movement

from, to, at, in, by, into, onto, off, out, out of, over, under

Location

in, above, over, under, below, beneath, underneath, between, behind, among, with

Limitation

but, except, without

We all have seen (if not written) sentences like this one:

We all have seen (if not written) sentences like this one:

^ Abundant prepositions: The data from the participants of younger age in this study were compared with those of subjects of older age by an analysis of variance.

This sentence consists of 25 words, 8 of which are prepositions. In other words, almost every third word is a preposition, and this is clearly too many. A "rule of thumb" is to use less than one preposition in every four words. Consider this correction of the above sentence:

"Healthy" ratio of prepositions: The data from the younger and older study participants were compared by an analysis of variance.

The sentence now contains 16 words, 3 of which are prepositions. Thus, the ratio of prepositions to other words is < 1:5. Because the "of" in "analysis of variance" is part of a fixed term, this preposition must be retained.

Of course, we could improve the style of the above sentence even further by using the active voice, as long as we were the agents, that is the "doers," in this case:

^ Preferred because active: We compared the data from the younger and older study participants by an analysis of variance.

Table 5.2 shows some rules whose application will help to limit the number of prepositions in scientific texts.

Table 5.2 Rules for Limiting Prepositions

RULES

EXAMPLES

Delete an entire prepositional phrase as meaningless or unnecessary.

In order to confirm the data Better: To confirm the data ...

Convert a prepositional phrase into a participle.

In the attempt to demonstrate this effect in vitro, ...

Better: Attempting to demonstrate this effect in vitro, ...

Convert a prepositional phrase into an adverb.

Of the data sets tested by statistics, three were significant.

Better: Of the data sets tested statistically, three were significant.

Change passive voice to active.

The hematocrit was determined by the nurse. Better: The nurse determined the hematocrit.

Split long sentences.

In our study, we found a positive correlation between the subjects' brain activity as measured by EEG and their subjective sensation of stimulation, and this finding was consistent across all subjects tested. Better: In our study, we found a positive correlation between the subjects' brain activity as measured by EEG and their subjective sensation of stimulation. This finding was . .

Use prepositions in a "healthy" proportion to the remaining words of the sentence (i.e., no more than one preposition per every four words).

Q Exercise 10

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