Hanging prepositions

When two or more different prepositions are needed in a list of actions, it can read better if you repeat the noun (or more likely use a placeholder, “it” or “them”), rather than leaving a hanging preposition waiting for its object to turn up later in the sentence.

The title’s not an official grammatical term – I don’t know if there is one – but at least it’s a snappy description. What I mean is easier to show with a couple of real-life examples:

  • The continuous struggle against and cooperation with water has shaped the Netherlands and always will. You’re left wondering for a couple of words what the “against” is referring to => The continuous struggle against water and cooperation with it…
  • The rental of and access to a cabin. The “of” is left hanging => The rental of a cabin and access to it
    (Though note that “renting and accessing” would be simpler!)
  • A more complex one:
    Access at the times when to the site or sites where and/or the proprietary computer systems upon which the API is to be used =>
    Access at the times when the API is to be used to the sites where it is used and/or the proprietary computer systems it is being used on

While it isn’t actively wrong in formal English, with old-fashioned and legal texts in particular favouring such structures, there’s often a simpler and more informal way of phrasing things. Dutch writing seems to be more comfortable with these “hanging” prepositions, though, so they turn up a lot more often in Dutch-written English .

Prevalence: very high. The longer the sentence and the more complex it is, the more likely you are to stick to the clause order and phrase order you have in mind from your native language. I guess.
Frequency: very high. In all kinds of material. While it’s not so much of an issue in formal legalese, for instance, it can be clunky and in the wrong register when you’re aiming for simple and readable language.
Native: yes. We’re perfectly capable of writing convoluted sentences too at times, unfortunately.

Published by Mike Wilkinson

Twenty years of translating and editing Dutch into English, as well as writing and publishing in English.

4 thoughts on “Hanging prepositions

  1. Is this what rhetoriticians would call cataphoric reference? Definitely agree that in English, it’s a bit marked and is more formal or for some specific effect.

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    1. I see what you mean. I was focusing more on the “little words” – the prepositions that are left hanging. But the “it” that then resolves the issue is a cataphoric (or anaphoric?) reference.

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      1. Cataphoric dual prepositional object (cataforische tweevoud voorzetselvoowerp)? Now that would be a fantastic term). I think “English writing style” personified still is weary of touching prepositions all thanks to that absurd rule that these shouldn’t end a sentence (based on Latin/French).

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