Writing Exercise 32



Prepositions --


Prepositions contribute to your style not just as structural words designed to bind a noun phrase to some other part of your sentence, but often as vehicles of unique content when they are used to delineate a very particular relation.  For instance, one of the most important of these aspects, hardly ever credited to the work of prepositions, is the shaping of a simile using like or as.  Here are some examples from Graham Greene:


Beauty is like success; we can't love it for long.


One hand clasped the package in his pocket like a promise.


"Can't you just go on, as you are doing now?" the voice pleaded, lowering the terms everytime it spoke, like some dealer in a market.


He tried to pray, but the Hail Mary evaded his memory, and he was aware of his heart-beats like a clock striking the hour.


A simile, however, is only one of the many relationships which a preposition can establish.  Indeed, often more important than the actual nature of the relationship itself is the very way we hear about it, the way the prepositional phrases are arranged on the page before us, the way they are used as structural words and as content words to pull together both grammar and meaning.  Here is another adroit model from Graham Greene:


He had a message to convey, but the darkness and the storm drove it back within the case of his breast, and all the time outside the house, outside the world that drummed like hammer blows within his ear, someone wandered, seeking to get in, someone appealing for help, someone in need of him.


Notice how the alternation of within and outside captures the shifting subjective focus of the scene, the final sequence of prepositional phrases guiding and building the sentence to its climax as a statement of personal need.  Here are some less dramatic examples, perhaps, but they are efficient nonetheless:


American intellectuals may no longer be said to live beyond the margins or even within the crevices of our society. (Irving Howe)


Faulkner died as the culture which sustained him was also dying, died in history, that is to say, rather than against it.  (Leslie A. Fiedler)


Our immediate experiences come to us, so to say, through the refracting medium of the art we like.  (Aldous Huxley) 


And finally, prepositions and their phrases piled-up in a reckless congestion for the sake of parody:


The procession of men and women from the street into the station and down the escalators towards the trains becomes a movement from a world above to an underworld of death.


All the way home in the taxi and in the lift up to her flat on the seventh floor Mrs. Liebig kept on chattering away.  (Angus Wilson)



EXERCISE 32 -- For practice in the various effects prepositions can have, compose 2 short paragraphs (5-6 sentences each) detailing a complicated movement through verbal, mental, or physical space.  One of these paragraphs may be a parody if you wish; however, make sure that you develop no stylistic bad habits from the exercise.  That is, unless the actual context of your essay calls for it, the undue stringing together of prepositions and their phrases will absolutely destroy your meaning.  Here, for example, is an excerpt from a student's final examination in the Bible as literature:


He breaks down on the misinformation of the death of his son after preaching to Joseph not to become caught up in human love at the expense of a slightly lessened attachment to divine faith.


Under no circumstances are you to copy or to approximate this!


Compiled by Jesse Easley (2005).