Melanie Spiller & Coloratura Consulting
A Tonic for Ramshackle Wordsmiths
Copyright Melanie Spiller 2011. Do not copy without permission.
Preposition Proposition

Something has gone badly amiss with preposition placement. There seems to be general confusion about where prepositions belong, and sadly, the media sets the worst example. I hope to provide a little clarity here, and clean up at least the segment of humanity that reads my blogs.


A preposition is a smallish word that provides direction for the nouns in a sentence (in time, at the table,on the dog, over there). A preposition is usually combined with a noun, verb, or adjective to express a modification or specification for the rest of the sentence. Prepositions include words like about, across, against, as, at, by, for, from, in, on, out, over, through, to, toward, under, up, with, and so forth. (Some of these words, like with and about, for instance, have other uses too.)


A prepositional phrase is a fragment—a collection of words that do not make a complete sentence—that involves a preposition and its object. Prepositional phrases are often offset by commas, and in American English, a prepositional phrase at the beginning of the sentence requires a comma afterward (British English finds this comma optional). If you don’t like the comma, you can always reverse the order of the sentence and have the same meaning with a slightly different emphasis.


     To the children, it looked green.

     It looked green to the children.


     As we sang, the audience squirmed uncomfortably.

     The audience squirmed uncomfortably as we sang.


Notice how the meaning or focus can slightly shift when you play with prepositional placement. Notice also how the comma forces a slight pause when you read. Let’s look at a sentence with two prepositions and see what happens.


     At peace at last, the old man slept.

     The old man slept, at peace at last.

     At peace, the old man slept at last.

     At last, the old man slept, at peace.


The same information is presented in each sentence, but the emphasis is slightly different. In the first sentence, the information that seems most important is that the old man slept. In the second sentence, the emphasis is on the old man’s difficulty falling asleep. In the third sentence, the emphasis seems to be the peace that the old fellow found. In the final sentence, the most poetic version of the words, each section seems to take equal weight, and the sentence takes longer to read than the other versions.


Let’s look at another.


     On the screen, you may see a flicker as the application executes.

     As the application executes, you may see a flicker on the screen.

     You may see a flicker on the screen as the application executes.


If you put the prepositional phrase on the screen at the end, it doesn’t make sense any more, because the noun the phrase modifies (flicker) is in the middle.


     You may see a flicker as the application executes on the screen.


See? That’s pretty strange. The preposition needs to be near the word or words it modifies.


A prepositional phrase can appear anywhere in a sentence, but it is most likely to appear at the beginning or the end. If you put it in the middle, you may create a muddle with the other nouns in the vicinity, especially if you forget to use commas.


     Microsoft on Monday said that…


Because the preposition is in the middle, and because it isn’t offset by commas, readers are forced to figure out that “Microsoft on Monday” isn’t a company name. See how much clearer it is with commas:


     Microsoft, on Monday, said that…

     On Monday, Microsoft said that…


I like the second option, because the prepositional phrase isn’t terribly important to the sentence; the prepositional phrase provides specificity for legal reasons or clarity. What Microsoft actually said is the essence of the sentence, not when it was said. I like to herd the essences all together without interruption because it’s clearest.


You’ve probably heard about the dreaded dangling preposition, and maybe you’ve even quoted that old standby from Winston Churchill, “That is something up with which I will not put.” There are several items of note in this sentence.


First, Churchill avoids dangling “put up with” or “put up” at the end, both of which leave the preposition not modifying anything but a period. Secondly, he’s used “with which” to avoid having the “with” tag along at the end. Both are valid efforts. You’ll notice that in all my examples, there is a noun, verb, adverb, or adjective at the end, not a preposition. And that’s an important point; the end of a sentence is a strong point—it’s the last thing to be read—and you really don’t want to let the sentence end in the air.


It also happens, sadly, that we are so accustomed to hearing those poor little prepositions at the end that we tag entirely unnecessary prepositions there, especially in questions. Like this:


     Where is it at?

     Which staircase did the man climb up?


When it should be:


     Where is it?

     Which staircase did the man climb?


I’m not saying there’s never a reason to dangle that preposition, like if saying “with which” or “that with which” might seem suddenly stilted and attract more attention to the construction of the sentence than to its contents. I’m just saying that a little vigilance has a high payoff in clarity.