Most of us are confident with the idea that nouns name things (tree, freedom) and verbs indicate an action (throw, walk) or a state of being (is, were). But what do prepositions do? Some say that prepositions (along with conjunctions, if truth be told) are the slipperiest of the eight parts of speech. They are meant to put the things we are writing about into relation with one another. But what’s a relation? That’s why they’re difficult.
To relate means to connect or refer to something else (in fact relate and refer are from the same Latin verb that means to carry back), so our family relations, for example, are those we are connected to genetically or socially. Appropriately enough, then, prepositions (and conjunctions too) belong to a category of grammar called connectives. They proceed from one noun, called the antecedent, and reach another, called the object, tying two words together meaningfully. The group of words from the preposition to its object is called a prepositional phrase.
So if I say I have a dollar in my pocket, the preposition in connects the two things dollar and pocket, dollar being the antecedent and pocket the object, and the group of words in my pocket comprises a prepositional phrase. We are making a connection through the idea of place: the preposition in tells the reader where it is I have a dollar. That’s straightforward enough.
But what about this sentence: I pulled out a dollar in anger. Now the same preposition has a different object, anger. Anger can’t be a place, but it can be a manner of acting, and in this prepositional phrase I am now telling the reader how I pulled that dollar out, not where the dollar was. A more subtle connection is being made here: not between two concrete things, a dollar and a pocket, but between an action, my pulling out a dollar, and a volatile emotion, anger. We could even combine these two ideas of place and manner in one sentence: I pulled out a dollar from my pocket in anger.
And here’s where we start slipping and sliding, for we can see in this last sentence why writers raise the cry about using too many prepositional phrases. English can’t be written without prepositions, but it can be written with too many. Prepositional phrases have a way of quickly gliding the reader over and past ideas that could—and in most cases probably should—be stated otherwise more powerfully. To achieve this, it can be helpful when revising to identify a prepositional phrase, determine the idea it’s communicating, and test whether that same idea could be stated without the preposition.
So in the sentence I pulled out a dollar from my pocket in anger, the prepositional phrase in anger could express the same idea of manner more simply with the single adverb angrily: I pulled out a dollar from my pocket angrily—and with that minor change we avoid writing two prepositional phrases next to each other. The result? The sentence tones up and strengthens its assertion; it says what it means, directly and straightforwardly.
Prepositions organize ideas, but sometimes at the expense of power. Being able to recognize a prepositional phrase and what idea it is communicating gives us an important opportunity to heighten the action the reader should see.