In much the same way that poker players have “tells,” most writers also have habits that careful readers consciously or unconsciously recognize as a writer’s specific style. These writing tells are often the things your friends notice in your e-mail messages and, even if your friends may not know why, they will recognize that the message came from you. In academic or legal situations, linguists can even use algorithms to assess writing and predict who wrote it by comparing it to known writing samples, as they did when they were recently investigating whether J.K. Rowling secretly authored the book The Cuckoo’s Calling.
When doing this analysis, researchers look at things such as vocabulary, word length distribution, and how an author uses what they call “function words”—words such as prepositions, conjunctions, and articles.
I fear that if a linguist ever subjected my first drafts to such analysis, the computer would implode when confronted with my flagrant overuse of the word of. A while ago, I was working on a technical document, and as I read back through it, I noticed that there must have been 20 instances of of. Ugh!
Avoid Overusing Prepositions
Of is a preposition, and although it's not an inherently evil word, overusing it can make your writing sound passive and fussy. The U.S. government has a plain language mandate, and when they talk about omitting unnecessary words, they specifically call out prepositions as a potential problem, saying “Watch out for of, to, on, and other prepositions. They often mark phrases you can reduce to one or two words.”
Here’s a sentence that uses “of” and could also use some editing:
BAD SENTENCE: She is the wife of George.
It reminds me of Margaret Atwood's book The Handmaid's Tale, in which the handmaids had names like Offred and Ofglen to show that they belonged to Fred and Glen. They were the handmaids of Fred and of Glen.
We can make that sentence more clear and direct by rewriting it without the word of:
BETTER SENTENCE: She is George's wife.
You probably wouldn’t write something as horrible as She is the wife of George—you’re more likely to say something like that when you’re racking your brain at a party: She? Wife. (Of somebody, but who? Who?) George! She...is the wife...of George.
Nevertheless, you may notice other, less obvious instances where you overuse prepositions. For example, in an early draft of this article, I wrote about the bad uses of “of.” Ugh! Better ways to say that are ways people misuse “of” or the ways “of” can make a sentence sound bloated.
The PlainLanguage.gov site also shows how to simplify many wordy phrases that contain prepositions:
- Replace on a monthly basis with monthly.
- Replace on the grounds that with because.
- Replace at this point in time with now.
- Replace a sufficient number of with enough.
Also, you can sometimes simply delete type of, kind of, and example of:
When researchers do this kind of analysis → When researchers do this analysis.
Here is an example of a sentence that could use some editing. → Here is a sentence that could use some editing.
Next: Why Prepositions Aren't Always Bad