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Beware the Preposition

I have a thing about prepositions. I like them OK. But I think it’s a good thing to keep them at arms length. I try not to get really chummy with them because they have a way of turning on you and biting you in the arse. You have to watch them like a hawk. They do not play well with others. Do not employ them often because if you do, you will suffer and learn the hard way about the law of diminishing returns.

I will admit these are glittering generalities, that a few writers are so skilled as to  force them to do hard labor, to exceed all expectation. There are, for example, more prepositional phrases in this sentence than you could shake a soft-lead pencil at:

“It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

I count 15 prepositional phrases, none of which should be excised and all of which do exemplary work. They were wielded, fitted precisely and expertly by their creator. But this is rare phenomenon. Such sentences appear less frequently than Haley’s Comet.

The abuse of prepositions is far more common. And it’s not pretty. I have in my time seen prepositions gather five, six, seven, eight and (God forbid) nine times in a sentence to create an unmanageable riot of phrases, dangling participles, splitting bloody infinitives and battering passive voices. Of this you can be certain (of). And do not make the mistake of thinking this is just a prose problem, that high and mighty poems tower far above this plug-ugly prepositional street crime.  For example, I just discovered this first line of a recently published poem:

“Where is your father whose eye you were the apple of?”

I will not summon the now-centuries-old schoolmarm rant about placing prepositions at the end of sentences. But one ought to recognize the wisdom of the ages in the rule. One of the best lessons one can learn about casting sentences is to understand  parts of the sentence —  beginning, middle and end — and the import of them. The most powerful part is the end, then the beginning and middle in which you find mostly flab sometimes laced with drivel. You must reserve your primo stuff for the end.

It is another generally agreed glittering generality that prepositions are best deployed as links. To leave a preposition at the end of a sentence is to put your toes over the edge of a steep cliff, bend your knees and lean forward. You could stumble, fall and get hurt. In any event, I leave it to you to judge whether placement of the preposition at the far edge energizes the cliché:

Where is the stitch that saves time in?

Where is the leap you look before?

Where is the love and war that all’s fair in?

Where’s the look whose bright side to look on?

Where’s the tree whose acorn from the tree does not fall far from?

Where’s the time you have hands on?

Where is he who from hell like a bat took off?

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