Friday, September 28, 2012

Prioritizing prepositions

The smell reminded her of her schooldays near Boston back in Amherst when she had worked in the library on the quadrangle in front of the admin building at the circulation desk.
Prepositions are those little words that show some "positioning" in time, space, or idea. Usually they connect two nouns-- with the main noun modified a prepositional phrase with the other noun as an object. Problem is, prepositional phrases, as modifiers, should be adjacent to the modified noun. But what happens, as so often does, when we have a series of prepositional phrases? We end up with monstrosities like the above sentence.

First:, recognize the problem. Learn what constitutes a prepositional phrase: (preposition word) (noun or phrase). Notice that stacking any prepositional phrases in a sentence almost always results in chaos-- why? Because prep phrases have to modify a noun, and the further they get from that noun, the more likely there is to be confusion. Accept that and try to avoid the whole stacking problem. Also notice in revision and resolve to fix.

Second, understand that the object of the preposition is a noun too, usually, and can sprout its own modifying prepositional phrases. So IN the LIBRARY modifies worked (yeah, I know, that's an adverbial function, and I have to think why... the verb is probably "worked in," but I'll come back to that after lunch when I can think).
But "library" has its own modifier:

NEAR the quadrangle

And "quadrangle" has its own modifier-- this is the quadrangle near the admin building.
IN FRONT OF the admin building.

That's sort of clunky, but understandable, until we stick in "at the circulation desk" which modifies not admin building, not quadrangle, but 'library" (where in the library she worked). (Would you put that before or after? She worked at the circ desk in the library, or She worked in the library at the circ desk? Why?)

Third, prioritize. When there are so many prepositional phrases, the reader is going get lost even if they're assembled in the right order. What's important to this moment of the story? She's looking back nostalgically at her schooldays. There's also some smell that reminds her (so she might think about a smell). She might be nostalgic about working in the library, but the positioning of the library on the campus probably isn't that important. So why put it in, if there's no need? Try changing a prep phrase to an adjective word-- "in Amherst" becomes "Amherst schooldays" or "Amherst library." Strip this down to essentials, and if you want to deepen the texture, give more sense of the setting, well, don't draw a map. Talk about the ivy on the stone walls or the dust on the library shelves or something evocative (and, given the sentence opening, something olfactory if possible).

The smell reminded her of her Amherst schooldays when she had worked at the library circulation desk, stamping books and breathing in the ink and dust.

This is a common issue with good writers who know they have to imbed information into each sentence so it adds to the meaning and the texture of the passage. That is, the more accomplished you are, the more likely your first draft will occasionally have one of these preposition-bristling sentences. Here's one modeled structurally on one I just saw in a generally well-edited news magazine:

The firing happened a little more than two weeks after Luigi's mistake of telling his boss to take a flying leap while at work in a meeting with the whole staff in the conference room.

 Have at it. This is actually tougher than it looks. :)


Laura Hughes, MittensMorgul said...

Luigi was fired a little more than two weeks after he told his boss, in front of the entire staff, to take a flying leap.

I'm not exactly sure that's right. As you said above, I don't think it matters WHERE any of this happened, and including it just adds to the confusion.

Edittorrent said...

Well, I think you are right to put "Luigi" first, and good about putting the "in front" right by the he told.
Is a meeting/conference room important? I agree-- prob not.

Anonymous said...

Luigi incautiously told his boss, before the whole staff assemblage, to take a flying leap; two weeks later, Luigi was unemployed.

Those kinds of sentences assemble themselves in first drafts, as we try to get all the relevant pieces in.

Which is one of the many reasons why first drafts should never see daylight.

Editing sentences, to keep the required information in without destroying flow, is one of the pleasures of writing.

SolariC said...

How about: 'Two weeks and two days after standing up in a staff-meeting and telling his boss to take a flying leap, Luigi found himself fired.'

I thought rearranging the whole sentence made it less long and drawn out and rambling and prepositional. What do you think?

Anonymous said...

A little more than two weeks telling his boss to take a flying leap at a meeting with the whole staff, Luigi was fired.

If only I could untangle my own sentences so easily.

green_knight said...

During a meeting with the whole staff, Luigi unwisely told his boss to take a flying leap. Two weeks later, he was fired.

I don't think this sentence has the same quality as the one you took apart so expertly - maybe because the first one is uniformly about locations ('her schooldays' is a temporal location), and they're awkwardly stacked. This one has many items, but they're almost all different, and 'a meeting in the conference room' is redundant, because the two usually go together - if it had been a meeting on the roof, or a karaoke party in the conference room, you'd have to specify, but as it is, you can go with the unmarked state.

Alicia said...

ABE, extra points for the semicolon! Some of us around here love them. :)

Solari, I like that one. The big point-- being fired-- has the prime position at the end.

R. Mac Wheeler said...

Good post.

In my critiquing...I think I find more danglers than anything else...and they drive me nutz.