Saturday, 31 March 2012

Use of Prepositions

A preposition is a word which demonstrates a logical relationship with other words within a sentence, by highlighting time, place and direction. They usually precede nouns or pronouns, and they’re the kind of words we don’t think too much about. 

Take this example, ‘The envelope is on the table, just under the alcove.’ The sentence shows us where the envelope is. Another simple example is, ‘He went out to the car and got in.’ Most prepositions usually fall at the end of a sentence.

But the thing with prepositions is that there are too many of them (150), so half the time, most are usually unnecessary.

It’s how the writer positions prepositions that make them more effective. Look again at the sentence above. It starts with the proposition, ‘But’. I chose this because it brought the sentence into effect - it directly made the point.

Most of us have probably been taught that starting and ending sentences with prepositions is frowned upon, especially by grammarians who eschew that words like ‘But’ should only be used within the sentence, and not to start one.

But think about it.

A well-placed preposition can actually be a positive and constructive thing. That’s because it’s a very simple tool that helps create a little bit of dramatic effect or sense of atmosphere, or when a writer wants to emphasise a point succinctly.

Without them, narrative might seem a little boring.

In fact, it’s sometimes more favourable to start a sentence with a ‘But’ or an ‘At’ or ‘On’. Their effect can bring gravity, brevity or directness to the narrative, but that doesn’t mean that the writer can drop them wherever he or she wants. Careful placement counts. It’s the cumulative effect of the overall scene that you need, rather than just placing them for the sake of it and thinking it works. 

If you place prepositions incorrectly, it will just make the writing look amateurish. In other words, don’t start a sentence with a preposition for the sake of it, and certainly don’t overload the narrative with them. Think about how effective they might be first. For example:

On the face of it, he was happy.

But Jill frowned at his expression.

With a derisive snort, he turned from her and made his way out...

You get the picture. Sometimes, less is more.

Here’s an example of brevity and direct effect:

He wasn’t sure who they were or where they were going; the human misery cooped up in the foul, stained wooden train.

But he was determined to find out.

The placement of the preposition of ‘But’ creates directness, a blunt atmosphere for the scene, and it also becomes an effective way to finish the scene within a determined statement of intent, thus informing the reader of what is yet to come.

Here’s another example of effective placement:

He stepped back from her, unwilling to engage.

She couldn’t find the words...

Since when did John start carrying a knife?

This can be useful when asking the reader a rhetorical a question, as above, leaving them to ponder the answer.

Other examples:

From somewhere deep in his mind, his conscience stirred...

By the time the sun poked over the ocean, three of them lay dead.

Before sundown, she’d be rid of him.

All three create brevity, all three are direct, and all three help foster the atmosphere.

The idea is to think about the effect of the sentence you want, and then choose the best preposition to give you that effect; ones that help make the scene, accentuate it, but not spoil it.

Correctly placed prepositions do the following:

  • Create dramatic effect or flourish.
  • Enable the writer to finish scenes/chapters by making a statement of intent.
  • Help heighten atmosphere with a sense of immediacy.
  • Make a direct point.
  • Ask rhetorical questions.

Commonly used Prepositions at the beginning of sentences

  • But
  • By
  • Until
  • On
  • Before
  • After
  • At
  • Since
  • From
 
The key here is to use them sparingly to add the right effect for when it matters and to not over use them. So, chuck out the old pedantic advice from your schoolteachers, and start using prepositions to your advantage. 
 
Next week: Cleverly placed conjunctions.
 
 

4 comments:

  1. Talk about a useful blog post - this is IT!
    Thanks AJ.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hello Hump. While mooching around I stumbled in here. I'm glad I did. I've read several posts already. Liked them too, since they inform yet don't overwhelm. Just thought I'd say so. Thank you.

    ReplyDelete
  3. @ Cathy - Glad it's proven useful!

    @ Valance - Thanks for popping in, I hope my articles prove useful. Hump :)

    ReplyDelete
  4. Claudia Traveller6 April 2012 at 08:22

    First visit to your Blog, Hump - and found this useful post. Thanks.

    ReplyDelete