The Problem with Prepositions

By Hart, Jack | Editor & Publisher, January 13, 1996 | Go to article overview

The Problem with Prepositions


Hart, Jack, Editor & Publisher


English is a language of options. The overlay of Germanic and Romance grammars that created our speech also created an incredible variety of routes to the same destination. If you don't like the scenery on one, you can try another. You'll almost never run into a dead end.

Or is that a cul-de-sac?

One of the choices our language offers involves the way it expresses relationships between things. Its Latin aspect, which made its way into English via Norman French, is inflective. It expresses different relationships by changing word forms. To show that a roof rests on a barn, we change the word "barn" by making it possessive: "the barn's roof."

The German aspect of English, on the other hand, is distributive. Instead of changing the forms of words, it expresses different relationships by changing the forms of sentences. Rather than "the barn's roof," you write "the roof of the barn."

Neither approach is necessarily better. And each can cause problems. Inflection can produce unpronounceable plural possessives such as Joneses'. And distribution can create awkward strings of prepositions -- "of the roof of the barn."

Fortunately, English almost always offers an escape. What's gibberish in the German variant is great in the Latin form. What twists Latin tongues gets right to the point in German.

Which suggests a fix for the strings of prepositional phrases that bog down much newswriting. Leads, in particular, often stutter with a parade of prepositions. Even worse, they assault readers with the same preposition. Like this:

* "Two Persons died in a weekend helicopter crash that also injured three others ... hospitalized after spending the night in the wreckage in dense underbrush in rural Yamhill County."

* "When detectives from the Washington County Sheriff's department tapped the telephone of Mindi Marie Tucker eight years ago, the information they recorded wrapped up their investigation of the month-old murder of her husband."

When prepositions get out of hand, we can clean things up by dropping the least important information and shifting from distributive to inflective forms. In the first example, for instance, we could have written about "two persons who died in a rural Yamhill County helicopter crash," eliminating the need for the last prepositional phrase, "in rural Yamhill County."

The same approach to the second example would have yielded the "husband's month-old murder."

One reason for newswriting's prepositional excess is that many reporters have simply forgotten Mrs. Grundy's grammar school instruction. …

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