Prepositions create links across your sentence and help define the relationships between phrases. Helpful prepositions include the words of, from, in, at, by, under, with, and to. When prepositions are used to excess they obscure meaning, make your sentences difficult to navigate, and sacrifice clarity.

For example, here's a sentence that’s difficult to understand with only one reading:

Natural history museums, like the American Museum, constitute one decisive means for power to de-privatize and re-publicize, if only ever so slightly, the realms of death by putting dead remains into public service as social tokens of collective life, rereading dead fossils as chronicles of life’s everlasting quest for survival, and canonizing now dead individuals as nomological emblems of still living collectives in Nature and History. [1]

Of course this sentence could be completely reorganized and rewritten with different words in an attempt to clarify the meaning, but simply reducing the number of prepositions can make a big difference. To highlight this principle, we won't change any of the language other than the prepositions:

Natural history museums, LIKE the American Museum, constitute one decisive means FOR power TO de-privatize and re-publicize, if only ever so slightly, the realms OF death BY putting dead remains INTO public service as social tokens OF collective life, rereading dead fossils as chronicles OF life’s everlasting quest FOR survival, and canonizing now dead individuals as nomological emblems OF still living collectives IN Nature and History.

Each preposition starts a prepositional phrase, and these phrases include one or more nouns. Here we'll judiciously edit. Is there a clear place where we can break the sentence? Here's one way of editing the sentence into three sentences:

Natural history museums, like the American Museum, constitute one decisive means for power to de-privatize and re-publicize, if only ever so slightly, the realms of death. Museums do this by putting dead remains into public service as social tokens of collective life. They reread dead fossils as chronicles of life’s everlasting quest for survival and canonize now-dead individuals as nomological emblems of still living collectives in Nature and History.

While the final sentence still contains its original vocabulary (and four prepositions), it’s much easier to comprehend. Check your own writing to see if you are obscuring your meaning. Sometimes, strings of prepositions are the culprit. If so, using this simple technique can simplify your editing.



[1] Timothy W. Luke, “Museum Pieces: Politics and Knowledge at the American Museum of Natural History." Australasian Journal of American Studies (December 1997). Excerpt quoted at: http://denisdutton.com/bad_writing.htm