Don’t Get Stuck in a Pile-up

February is upon us, and in most of the U.S., the month brings with it the worst weather of the year. The combination of snow, ice, and fog unfortunately often result in major traffic accidents, such as a 200-vehicle pile-up in Michigan in January, 2005–one of the worst in recent U.S. history. Incidents of this scope obviously cause major disruptions; highways are usually closed for hours, if not days, depending on the extent of the damage.

Although not nearly as disastrous, pile-ups in your writing can also obstruct your reader’s way through your message. What am I talking about?–a phenomenon sometimes called prepositional pile-up.

First of all, let’s look at what a preposition is: one of those little words such as at, by, of, on, to, about, before, after, behind, during, for, from, in, over, under, and with that are followed by at least one other word, usually more. These prepositional phrases describe location, time, how the actor performs the action described in the sentence (i.e., an adverbial phrase), and so on.

Some examples:

On the highway, behind a truck (location); in the morning, during a snowstorm (time); with great care, in a hurry (adverb, describing how an action was done).

So prepositional phrases can be useful in rounding out a complete picture of what’s going on. The problem comes in when there are too many of them too close together, like cars in a pile-up:

All of the trucks on the highway during the storm pulled off the road due to high winds from the east.

That’s six prepositional phrases in one sentence! Contrast that with the advice given in the Chicago Manual of Style (my favorite style manual!), which recommends using just one preposition per every 10-15 words. Why? Because too many prepositional phrases can obscure the main idea of the sentence. Come to think of it, what was the point of that example again? Oh, yeah, trucks pulled off the road because the weather was bad.

Additionally, when you read a sentence with many prepositional phrases aloud, it can take on a sing-songy quality that distracts listeners from the point. Read the above out loud to try it out. Didn’t your voice fall into a kind of rhythm, something like DA-da-da DA-da-da DA-da-da…?

So how could we rewrite this sentence? Take the main idea:

Trucks pulled off the road because the weather was bad.

Then add the ideas in the prepositional phrases back in, but using other words:

Every truck traveling the highway pulled off the road because of the storm’s strong easterly winds.

So now we have:

  • Every truck, instead of (All) of the trucks;
  • traveling the highway, instead of on the highway;
  • the storm’s, instead of during the storm;
  • easterly winds, instead of (winds) from the east.

We still have two prepositional phrases–off the road and because of the storm’s strong easterly winds–over the course of 18 words, so we haven’t quite met Chicago’s ideal, but I think you’ll agree that it’s much easier to quickly grasp the main idea in this version.

So this time around I have a challenge for you! Be on the lookout for prepositional pile-ups, and see if you can top my example with six in one sentence. If you can’t find any “in the wild,” try making some up. After finding or inventing your pile-ups, try rewriting them – can you reach the goal of just one preposition in 10-15 words? Please comment below and let me know how you do!

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