Avoid Unnecessary Prepositions with Some Verbs

Picture of Scissors to Represent Conciseness

Last week I talked about avoiding redundant verbs. In this post, I’ll discuss another conciseness issue that authors often run into with verbs: adding an unnecessary word after the verb.

In many cases, the extra word after a verb is essential to the verb’s meaning. For instance, the verb write on is of course different than the verb write out. But there are many cases where the extra word (usually a preposition) is unnecessary.

For instance, today I came across a sentence like this:

“Xavier (2013) expounded upon the idea in his study.”

It is common in conversation and casual writing to include the word on or upon with the verb expound. But upon close inspection, this verb does not need the extra word. We can just say,

“Xavier (2013) expounded the idea in his study.”

Take a look at Merriam-Webster’s definition of the word (definition 2), and note the example given in the carrot braces:

“to explain by setting forth in careful and often elaborate detail <expound a law>.”

Garner’s Modern American Usage (pp. 337-338) also recommends this more concise usage.

How to Avoid This Issue

So how can you avoid this problem? Well, admittedly, this issue is a bit difficult to spot because it usually feels natural to include the extra word (otherwise, we wouldn’t include it!).

One helpful tip though is to try to avoid phrasal verbs in academic writing. Phrasal verbs are verbs that combine with one or more words to take on a new meaning (e.g., the verb get has a different meaning than the phrasal verbs get out and get up). Why?

1. Conciseness

You can almost always find a one-word verb to replace a multiple-word verb. This is good practice because one-word verbs are more concise and therefore tend to improve readability. Remember, academic writing tends to be dense. Cutting out unnecessary words helps the readers focus their energy on understanding the core of your ideas, rather than on processing the verbiage itself.  For instance, instead of saying “keep away from,” a more concise option would be avoid.

2. Consistent, Academic Tone

One-word verbs also tend to be a bit more formal (not always, but usually), and although you don’t have to use a formal word for formality’s sake, it is good practice to maintain a consistent tone in your document. In academic writing, the tone tends to be more formal, so if you suddenly switch to conversational-type phrasal verbs, it can create an unevenness to your writing. One example is the phrasal verb talk about. Instead, you can use the verb discuss, which is more concise and maintains a more scholarly tone.

3. Prevent Potential Ambiguity

One-word verbs can often help avoid potential ambiguity. Ambiguity sometimes threatens when a verb (of any amount of words) has multiple meanings. Usually, the surrounding context clarifies which meaning applies in a given sentence, but the reader sometimes has to stop to check the meaning, and if we can help it, we shouldn’t write in a way that will cause most readers to stop in this way. It’s one thing if the reader stops to ponder your idea–it’s quite another if the reader stops because your choice of words was initially unclear (or worse, remains unclear even after one checks for meaning). Not all phrasal verbs create potential ambiguities or cause pauses in reading, but the additional word or words can often do at least the latter. Just another reason not to use them in formal writing, unless of course a more precise, concise, and/or appropriate word is unavailable.

4. Avoid the Error Noted in This Post

Well, this is an extension of Point 1 above, but I listed it separately to return to the central issue of this post. By using one-word verbs, your academic writing can improve in many ways. As a bonus, this approach will help you avoid the issue discussed above, where an unnecessary word was added to a verb. Any time that you find yourself adding a word to a verb, quickly check Merriam-Webster to see if you can use the verb by itself, or if another verb would be better. If it seems unclear whether you should include a word after your verb, chances are many other people have the same question, and in those cases, there is usually an entry in Garner’s Modern American Usage to clarify.



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Rocky Citro

Hi, my name is Rocky, and I am a technical academic editor with over a decade experience editing for professors and graduate students in prestigious universities. I have also taught writing at the graduate and undergraduate level and have several years' TEFL teaching experience.