Monday, February 04, 2008

Mind your prepositions

16 Austin Lawyer 13 (Oct. 2007)

We should write sentences that convey our meaning and keep the reader engaged. We should write sentences that flow. That can be hard in legal writing, but we can learn. This article discusses two preposition problems that can spoil engaging, flowing sentences. When you use excessive prepositions and compound prepositions, you chop your sentences up and bog your reader down.

Excessive prepositions
A sentence with too many prepositional phrases can become stilted and choppy. See Joseph M. Williams, Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace 42 (8th ed. 2005). A stilted and choppy sentence is hard to read and hard to read quickly. Consider this one:
  • A knowledge of correct trial procedures is the duty of all of the members of the bar of this state.
This sentence has 5 prepositional phrases in 21 words. And you'll agree, I hope, that it's an awkward little thing. But now we have better terminology; we don't just say it's awkward, we say it has too many prepositions. When we edit, we focus on removing them:
  • All state-bar members must know correct trial procedure.
Now we have no prepositions and a more vigorous sentence. Here's another example:
  • There is no current estimate of the number of boxes of records in possession of the schools.
(You think I'm making these examples up? No. This is a real sentence written by a real lawyer.) Here we remove only four out of five prepositions--because not all prepositions are bad--and we get a stronger sentence, although we do have to add an actor:
  • We have not estimated how many boxes of records the schools have.
So when you edit, look for short bursts coming at you in waves. Maybe you have too many prepositions. Or look for prepositions specifically. You'll engage your readers more effectively if you cut excessive prepositions.

Compound prepositions
Compound prepositions are longer, fancier versions of regular prepositions. Here are my favorites:

in order to
for the purpose of
with reference to
in connection with
with regard to
with a view toward
in the event of
on account of
by means of
in conjunction with

If you want to sound stuffy and stiff, sprinkle these throughout your writing. See Bryan A. Garner, The Winning Brief 243 (2d ed. 2004). They have a formal flavor:
  • We prepared the interrogatories in conjunction with the Popsey matter hastily, in order to meet the discovery deadline.
In this sentence, in conjunction with and in order to serve no purpose but to make the sentence longer and more formal. Simplify them:
  • I prepared the interrogatories for the Popsey matter hastily to meet the discovery deadline.
Here's another simple idea made fluffy with compound prepositions:
  • Gail said she wanted to discuss something with me in connection with my legal memo with a view toward improving my writing.
For writing that moves--that flows--prune the compound prepositions:
  • Gail said she wanted to discuss something with me about my legal memo, so I could improve my writing.
When you edit your document, spot and remove excessive prepositions and compound prepositions. Your readers will appreciate it.

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home