Lesson 5
Unraveling Adjective-Noun Strings, Reducing Preposition Sprawl

Exercise #1
Unravel the following adjective-noun strings.

crude oil output estimation

breeder reactor spent fuel shipping container

complete machine diagnostic message display panel

junction box lay out schematic diagram drawing standards

high frequency transmitter installation cost analysis

polluted mine drainage technique preliminary analysis

electrical equipment grounding conductor configuration schematic

mechanically interlocked flat blade screwdriver removable piano type hinges

Upstate New York gas processing plant emission reduction exemption application

Congratulations; you're becoming an expert at unraveling adjective-noun strings. Thanks for conserving your reader's mental energy! Now here's another stylistic technique that will make your sentences more readable: reducing the number of prepositional phrases per clause.

Reducing Preposition Sprawl
Now that I've advised you to break up those long adjective-noun strings, I must warn you against creating long strings of prepositional phrases! Both practices make your prose difficult to read. Check the proportion of prepositional phrases to clauses. A clause, remember, is simply the basic formula you need to make a sentence: a subject and a predicate (a thing and something said about that thing).

More than two or three prepositional phrases per clause begins to wear on your readers because they're forced to put more and more material "on hold" as they try to figure out what the phrases modify. Try wading through this sentence:

"Aside from the need for adjustment of the allocations to new heads of departments in the company, the proper execution of all the details of the plan should result in no further increases in the funds necessary to expend on the implementation of the projects under the supervision of the various divisions of our organization."

Want to see that again, with the prepositional phrases flagged? Here you are:

Aside [from the need] [for adjustment] [of the allocations] [to new heads] [of departments] [in the company], the proper execution [of all the details] [of the plan] should result [in no further increases] [in the funds] necessary to expend [on the implementation] [of the projects] [under the supervision] [of the various divisions] [of our organization].

There is only one genuine clause here: "Proper execution should result in no further increases"; possibly two if you extract a clause from the morass of the introductory statement. I deliberately hung 15 prepositional phrases on them to make my point. Your own prose will not, I hope, be anywhere near this disproportionate--but at least do some spot checking. If you find a number of sentences with three or more prepositional phrases per clause, edit to reduce that proportion. Just don't do it by creating long adjective-noun strings! Find the Aristotelian Golden Mean for your own writing--the balance that will make your prose the best that it can be. Remember to look for the agents who are performing actions. Sometimes you must "invent" those agents (subjects), as you learned in Unit 1. Also: don't be afraid to distill some prepositional phrases into short adjective-noun groups.

Exercise #2
Adjust the proportion of prepositional phrases to clauses in the following sentences:

Give enough space to the override for access by a screwdriver without causing damage to the pressure valves on the inside of the unit.

Each device on the list from the vendor must be fitted with a nameplate on the outside of its casing for the purpose of ease of identification by inspectors.

Little has been said about the use of think tanks as a means for the development of ideas about the improvement of conditions for workers in the factories with conditions of the worst kind.

The assumption was relaxed for the invertebrates and for the fish in order to account for the short life spans of these animals in the study conducted by the biologists assigned to the area where pollution from PCBs in the water was in the highest concentration.

Decision makers for the government agencies involved in studies of the area engaged in a process for determining the impact of environmental conditions on the health of the flora and fauna in the wetlands outside the boundaries of the ORR.

Excellent! Now try your hand at unraveling adjective-noun strings and reducing the number of prepositional phrases in an entire paragraph. Don't forget the other stylistic skills you've been building. Type your OWN REVISION before looking at mine. You want to learn to do this on your own, don't you?

"Monitoring of waters flowing over surface areas in the interior of ORR boundaries will be accomplished by site-designated Lockheed Martin state and federal regulation compliance personnel. This is in conformity with the policies established in agreements with the representatives of the agencies in the state of Tennessee and at the federal level with contamination oversight responsibilities for the safety of the reservation and of the surrounding area. However, comprehensive ORR subterranean and outside-site follow-through monitoring is mandated to be accomplished only by federally appointed hazardous waste and contamination compliance officers. Lockheed Martin employees are instructed to cooperate to the fullest with those federal contamination compliance officers at the time of their investigation into the nature and movement of the contaminants in surface water and under the surface, in and around ORR, especially those being released from the PCB Abatement Program hazardous waste area designated holding ponds."

Your own revision WILL NOT be exactly like mine, and I'm not saying mine is the best possible revision. But I think you'll agree that it's a distinct improvement over the original. I used active voice, denominalized (and eliminated fluff verbs), trimmed fat, reduced jargon, unraveled noun strings, and reduced preposition sprawl. You, I trust, have done the same. For further practice: find several bloated paragraphs of prose--perhaps from the Oak Ridge Gaseous Diffusion Plant?--and work your stylistic magic on them. Your friends, your teachers, and your boss will be impressed.