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3. Compound Prepositions

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A Stuffy Style

These come in two varieties:

1. two-word prepositions 2. three-word prepositions

The two-word varieties include pursuant to, according to, because of, prior to, subsequent to, and others. The three-word varieties include with respect to, in regard to, in accordance with, and others.

Compound prepositions, such as with respect to, tend to get a bit fuzzy, so we should use them only when prepositions with more concrete meaning fail to capture exactly what we’re trying to say.

Before reviewing a list of compound prepositions, you might want to pause and enjoy the grumbles of Henry Fowler on the wordiness and fuzziness of compound prepositions:

[T]aken as a whole, [compound prepositions] are almost the worst element in modern English, stuffing up what is written with a compost of nouny abstractions. To young writers the discovery of these forms of speech, which are used very little in talk and very much in print, brings an expansive sense of increased power; they think they have acquired with far less trouble than they expected the trick of dressing up what they may have to say in the right costume for public exhibition. Later they know better, and realize that it is feebleness instead of power that they have been developing; but by that time the fatal ease that the compound-preposition style gives (to the writer, that is) has become too dear to be sacrificed. Fowler, p. 102.

The most recent edition, New Fowler, however, says that this “colourful view no longer seems to be supported by the facts.” New Fowler, p. 167.

With Respect To, A Stuffy Expression to Avoid

I beg to differ with New Fowler. Especially in my profession—the law—and in government, writers do stuff up what they write with flimsy compound prepositions, the most favorite being with respect to. In one paper I reviewed, written by an attorney at a large corporation, I found seven with respect to’s in a single paragraph.

Now that kind of style produces exactly the “compost of nouny abstractions” Fowler, and all good writers, seek to avoid.

And consider the expression prior to. It means nothing more than before. Saying prior to does not make something more before than before. Ditto subsequent to. It means nothing more than after.

So study this list of compound prepositions (and other wordy strings of prepositional phrases and subordinating conjunctions) with corresponding simpler expressions that just might say the same thing:

Compound Prepositions, A List

Try to banish the compound preposition from your style:

Compound Expression Simple Expression
at that point in time then
at this point in time now
by means of by
by reason of because of
by virtue of by, under
during the course of during
for the purposes of [+ noun] for the purposes of [+ gerund] for infinitive phrase
for the reason that because
from the point of view of from, for
in accordance with by, under
inasmuch as since
in a manner similar to like
in excess of more than, over
in favor of for
in order to to
in receipt of received
in relation to about, concerning
in routine fashion routinely
in terms of in
in the event that if
in the nature of like
in the immediate vicinity of near
in close proximity with near
on the basis of by, from
prior to before
pursuant to under, according to
similar to like
subsequent to after
with a view to to
with reference to about, concerning
with regard to about, concerning
with respect to on, about, for, in, concerning, with, to, or some verbal expression


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