The Preposition Gnome


Good morning, folks!  A J Hartley, world traveller, is unable to post today (don’t worry, he’s just catching his breath after his trip.  He’ll be back soon!)  In the meantime, our friend Kalayna Price has stepped in to fill the spot for today.  Welcome back, Kalayna!


I think there is a gnome living in my laptop. When I shut down for the day, he emerges and riffles through my first draft. He’s a fan of prepositions, and as he moseys through my manuscript, he scatters copious amounts of these “treasures” (yes, I’m thinking of another word) amongst my pages. I spend all subsequent drafts trying to sift out these unnecessary words. Those extra prepositions are like regular soft drinks: just empty calories. Anyone who has ever dieted knows what a difference cutting soft drinks from the daily routine can do for the figure. In the same way, cutting extra prepositions makes for leaner writing.

Prepositions are words that establish a noun’s relationship with another word or phrase in a sentence. They indicate direction, position, time, location, and so forth. Basically, a preposition is anywhere a gnome can go:

The gnome can go around my laptop/in my laptop/under my laptop/ through my laptop. (though that last one sounds really dangerous for my poor computer.) The gnome goes down one side of my laptop and up the other. He can go across my keyboard and along my screen. He will continue to go until he has to stop. (This trick doesn’t work for all prepositions, such as ‘than’ and ‘concerning’, but it works for many, especially for the ones the gnome tends to abuse.)

As you can guess from those examples, prepositions will be used extensively when characters interact with each other and their environment. They are a necessary part of speech, so not something I can maliciously search and destroy. No, the gnome hides the fatty prepositions among the necessary. Those extra prepositions make my writing chunky (and clunky) so I must evaluate each as I revise. Here are a couple things I look for:

  • Prepositions that restate the obvious or could be dropped without the meaning of the sentence changing.
    • The gnome stood up.
      The “up” in this sentence is unnecessary. Unless you are standing up for your rights or your commanding officer ordered you to stand down, a preposition after stand/stood tells us nothing that the verb alone didn’t already communicate. The reader knows that standing involves upward movement so simply saying The gnome stood is sufficient. This also applies to verbs like lie/lay and sit/sat. No need to sit down as the fact a character was standing before she sat will imply the direction.
    • The gnome reached out with his magic.
      This, like the previous example, has a directional preposition that doesn’t add anything. The sentence is leaner as The gnome reached with his magic.
  • Prepositions that fall back-to-back in a sentence. (And yes, I’m aware of the irony in that sentence.)
    • The gnome’s hand moved up to her face. She looked down at him.
      I know it seems like I’m picking on “up” and “down” but those particular prepositions tend to be the ones writers abuse the most. Sometimes the direction is important as it can imply a size difference or the location, but often it just makes for clunky writing, especially when a preposition is followed by a prepositional phrase.
  • Prepositional phrases that add something that could be said more concisely.
    • She was cursed by the magic of the gnome.
      The phrase “of the gnome” marks the magic as belonging to the gnome. It would be far better to drop the prepositional phrase and just say She was cursed by the gnome’s magic. (Yes, that’s a terrible sentence, I know.)

The gnome is also a fan of dropping prepositions at the end of sentences, prepositions I then have to move during revision (unless the reconstructed sentence would be terribly awkward). That gnome really loves his prepositions.

Anyone else have a gnome that fiddles with their manuscript? (Because it couldn’t be us writers littering our manuscripts with all those extraneous words, right?)


17 comments to The Preposition Gnome

  • Excellent post Kalayna! The gnomes fiddle around quite a bit with my prepositions–as they are with this post it seems. They also tend to start many of my sentences with a conjunction, which isn’t always bad, but loses something because there are so many others close by.

    The gnomes insert the word ‘just’ in many places as well.

    I’m sure the gnomes have gone further and have messed with things beyond my notice, but those are a few examples of how they mess with my writing!

  • So very true. Thank you for this reminder, Kalayna. About the only time I can see prepositions getting a pass is when the story is first person POV and it’s part of the character’s voice. But my WIP is first-person and prepositions are NOT part of her voice, so I’m really glad to read this.

    I agree with Alistair about “just”! That word just seems to work its way in so easily—oops. 😉

  • Great post, Kalayna, and thanks for standing in for me! My gnomes plant softening words that make the phrase less precise: “vaguely,” “a kind/species of,” “almost,” “sort of.” That kind of thing. It’s me trying to be evocative but usually being merely weak.

  • Kalayna, I think tha Southern gnomes are the worst, adding in more clunky words than others, but that may be my Southern vision. And now I remember — I forgot to scan my last mscpt for unnecessary preps. (head in hand) Dang it.

  • Alistair and Laura, oh, yes, my preposition gnome also has a good friend known as the just gnome. When I finish revising, I do a search for ‘just’ in the manuscript and evaluate each one. I’m afraid I have a tendency to justify my justs.

    Thanks AJ! Those are good examples of words that let writers not fully commit to what we’re describing. I think we all hedge once in while. Thanks for the reminder to watch out for those words!

    LOL, Faith. You may be on to something with that Southern gnome thing. I know I have to fight some constructions I hear constantly but I know aren’t correct (like “have got” drives me crazy but I still find myself typing it.) Oh, no for your manuscript! Of course, I did scan my last manuscript Faith, and I still found more after the copyedits *headdesk* I’ll have to really evaluate the remainders during the page proofs. That isn’t really the stage to change things that insignificant. ^_^

  • Unicorn

    My two gnomes are “Next” and “Awakening”. My characters are always doing this, and next they’re doing that, and next they’re doing something else. They also tend to wake up a lot.
    In my WIP, I find myself using a lot of “looked down at”. However, I think the MC is very sensitive to that sort of thing because he’s physically really small, and it’s something that bothers him a lot. People are always looking down at him. My manuscript is littered with looking down. Now, does this particular preposition work because of the MC’s sensitivity? Or is it just another gnome? I’m watching it in my other works so that it doesn’t become a crutch there, but I seem naturally far less inclined to use it anywhere but in that particular story, and I’ve no idea of how to handle it.
    Thanks for the post!

  • Kalayna> Great post. I haven’t noticed prepositions in my writing, but I haven’t been looking for them. Or maybe I’m a fan of prepositions (is it better to say a preposition fan?). I, too, have “just” issues. And the wishy-washy “almost” etc. that AJ mentioned.

    The one I’ve been watching for lately is “then.” “Then” is also often meaningless. “He opened the door. Then he stepped in.” Duh. “He opened the door. He stepped in.” (Bad sentences, but they make the point, I guess.) In my academic writing, it was “ultimately.” Things ultimately happened several times.

  • Sarah

    I definitely have the preposition gnome, as well as the “just” and “then” gnomes. Yesterday I found a place where I used just twice in one sentence. And both of them were useless. Uggggh.

  • Lance Barron

    Kalayna, really great post. Just then I realized I hadn’t got around to looking for clunky prepositions. I’ll just have to tell that gnome to come on out from down in under there.

    Some one had to do it.

  • Razziecat

    Ouch, Lance, that hurts!

    I tend to overuse qualifiers like “slightly”, “very”, “really, “always.” When I’m editing and rewriting, I try to ask myself “will it change the meaning if I drop this word?” The answer is often “no” and the sentence has more impact without the extra words.

  • Amy Sandbak

    Great post! I’ll keep an eye out for those prepositions. I think I might have a “head word” gnome. I’m beginning to realize I have way too many spots where “he wondered, he thought, he knew” could be cut. I’m playing with the idea that if I cut these head words, I might actually let my readers sink into a deeper POV. So instead of writing, “He wondered if things would have been different if his parents were still alive”, I wrote “Would things have been different if his parents were still alive?” Does anyone else have any thoughts on unnecessary head words? I’m still trying to figure them out. Is the overuse of them even an issue?

  • The word-clan gnomes are distant cousins to the sock gnomes and the lid gnomes. The difference being, of course, the word gnomes leave things while the sock and lid gnomes take.

    The then-, just-, weaken-, adverb- and prep-gnomes are frequent visitors here at Chez Nix. I leave cookies and candy out in hopes they’ll be distracted and leave my works alone.

  • Tom G

    checked WIP.
    Up – 922 times
    Down – 298 times

    I was afraid to check for any others.

  • Tom G

    I just decided that I should man up, and just do it. So I just scanned by manuscript for “just” and 127 is just too many to justify. Just saying.

  • Amy> My $02 about “head words” as you call them is that they are 99% of the time totally unnecessary AND they distance your reader from your pov character. When I read “he wondered” then I’m outside looking in–when I read “Would things have been different?” then I’m in his head. Even if it is in third person. The one I see a lot of in the editing I do is “felt.” That one is a distancing killer. (I edit erotica, so there is a LOT of feeling. ahem.) But even “she felt the breeze flutter on her face” is better as “the breeze fluttered on her face” (which is a terrible sentence, but hopefully it makes my point.)

    The one exception/small caveat I’ll give to preposition is phrasal verbs. Some verbs come pre-packaged with prepositions and removing them makes no sense. Like “put up with.” “He put up with her screaming” is definitely NOT the same as “he put her screaming.” So while “he sat” and “he sat down” don’t change with the dropping of the prep, some do. This is not to say that there isn’t a better choice than a phrasal verb–there often may be (rather than “he put up with” maybe he tolerated, he suffered, he survived, whatever), but the phrasal verbs need the prepositions to work.

  • If I were still teaching English as a second language, I would print out and illustrate all your examples. XD Thanks for the post–looks like another search-and-destroy editing technique. 😉

  • Thanks for this, Kalayna. These reminders are always helpful, particularly when starting a new piece and looking for the correct voice. I’m about to start a contemporary UF, where sparse is definitely better.