Look for Prepositional Phrases

In the first draft of a longish report, a student of mine recently wrote a sentence similar in structure to this one: He related to me that cooking was one of the greatest sources of his love of his family. My student wasn’t happy, I wasn’t happy, and so after analyzing the sentence together for a few minutes, he produced this revision: He told me he especially loved cooking for his family. So how did we get from that to this?

Let’s begin with the fact that my student himself was not pleased with what he had originally written. Reading it closely again, he said the sentence seemed to be searching for what it wanted to say, that it sounded imprecise and artificial, that it didn’t speak in a natural voice. Good observations all. So we began with what can be the royal road to revision: analyzing form. Form means the shape or contour of something, and in the art of writing, it specifically means the grammatical structures we create with our words. Form is not syntax, not how a word or group of words functions grammatically in a sentence. Syntax is all important, of course, but how something works depends upon its structure, and so we have to understand first what we’re actually seeing as we analyze a sentence we’re not pleased with. And that’s a fairly straightforward project, because we can reduce all possible grammatical forms to three elements: word, phrase, and clause.

A word is just what we know it is, a group of letters which together convey meaning. A phrase and clause, though, must be carefully distinguished. A phrase is a group of words without a subject and verb, and a clause is a group of words with a subject and verb. In my student’s original sentence of eighteen words, there are two clauses (he related and cooking was) and four phrases (to me, of the greatest sources, of his love, and of his family). These three elements can be put, we can imagine, into a fantastic number of different combinations (which accounts, in part, for why writing can be so difficult an art), but one configuration, or form, that is especially troublesome, and should therefore be on our revision watch list, is the prepositional phrase. Phrases are almost always named by the kind of word with which they begin, and so a prepositional phrase is a group of words (without subject and verb) which begins with a preposition and ends with a noun or pronoun, called the object of the preposition.

Prepositions are those secondary words which connect some word before it (called the antecedent) with the object of the preposition itself. In the original sentence we’re considering, the preposition of intends to connect the indefinite pronoun one to the noun sources, the object of the preposition, but with that connection the trouble tumbles out, because the writer no doubt found sources too vague and so constructed another prepositional phrase, of his love, to specify the meaning of sources, which in turn needed another prepositional phrase, of his family, to specify the object of his love. And all that unspecificness—and the additions needed one upon the next to correct it—is just why too many prepositional phrases in a row should be regarded with rightful suspicion.

The writer’s revision, then, transposed the prepositional phrase of the greatest sources into the adverb especially, which now was made to modify the verb loved, which he created from the next prepositional phrase of his love. He then retained the phrase of his family, but changed the original preposition of to for, the better to show that the family was the object of his love, not its possessor (a construction called an objective genitive). And, finally, he was able to unwrite altogether the first prepositional phrase, to me, by replacing the high-sounding he related to me with the colloquial he told me.

Words, it seems, like to hide their meaning until just the right question is posed by analyzing the shapes they’ve assumed in a first draft. And then all manner of change is possible.

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