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.
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 US 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.
Good Uses of Of
Of isn’t always wrong though. It has good uses too, such as “Please bring me a cup of coffee.” You have to write it that way to show that you want the liquid to drink. If you tried to omit the of, you might end up with “Please bring me a coffee cup”, which has a different meaning. (Of course, you could always just say, “Please bring me a coffee.”)
I also find of to be useful when I’m dealing with a complex trail of possession. For example, I find it easier to follow something like “He’s the cousin of my neighbor’s brother” than “He’s my neighbor's brother’s cousin.”
Prepositions in Idioms
Finally, English has many idioms and set phrases that use prepositions. For example, even though you should generally exclude of when you can and it doesn’t change the meaning (you jump off a bridge, not off of a bridge), the correct phrase is a couple of something, not a couple something. You had a couple of meetings yesterday, not a couple meetings.
In general, you should avoid ending a sentence with a preposition when you can omit the preposition without changing the meaning of the sentence. For example, it’s better to ask someone, “Where are you?” than to ask, “Where are you at?” Nevertheless, the sentence It’s where it’s at, is an idiom that means “hip and cool” and requires the final at.
Search for Prepositions in Your Early Drafts
Although of and other prepositions can be useful, they can also clutter your writing. If overusing them is your writing tell, as it is mine, use your word processor’s “find” feature to search for specific prepositions after you’ve finished your first draft. If you find an of or an on every few sentences, you should probably do some rewriting.
More From Quick and Dirty Tips
- Ending a Sentence With a Preposition
- Because as a Preposition
- Can You Start a Sentence with a Preposition?
This article was originally published on Quick and Dirty Tips. It has been republished here with permission.