Count the prepositional phrases in that sentence. Can you confidently identify four? If not, let’s clear the confusion now. To recognize prepositional phrases you must recognize the various prepositions.
Prepositions identify relationships, most often of time (during, throughout, until, before, since, after, etc.), or space (underneath, in, over, through, between, above, across, among, below, throughout, around, by, on, etc.).
In the opening sentence of this post, the first prepositional phrase identifies a space, “along four shelves.” The next, “with mechanical bells,” expresses an attribution (a characteristic) of the clocks. The third, “to ring,” describes what is produced when the clocks’ alarms are set. The last, “at the same time,” indicates time.
Using the phrases correctly
We voice the word as PREP·osition, but look at the word’s construction: “pre” (before) and “position” (place). Many handbooks define the preposition phrase as
(the preposition) + (the words comprising the object).
Yes, but no. Sometimes the phrase is inverted because our ears like it better that way. You might say, “This is a class I want to stick with!” You are fairly unlikely to say, “This is a class with which I want to stick.” If you’ve ever been scolded about an inverted prepositional phrase, it should only have been while you were speaking Latin. That’s the language with the rule, not English.
Actually, the worst mistake writers make with prepositional phrases is using so many they weigh a sentence down. How many is too many? “More than three,” one of my past instructors said. “More than one for every dozen words,” said another. The truth: sometimes you need them, sometimes you don’t, and sometimes you are using them to do work better left to another part of speech.
Cut a prepositional phrase
if the phrase belongs inside a different sentence. The example sentence that opened this post does not need the phrase “crowded along four shelves” in order to retain the meaning:
The twenty-two clocks, most with mechanical bells capping their faces, make quite a racket when all are set to ring at the same time.
if you can substitute a verb.
The twenty-two clocks, most with mechanical bells capping their faces, make quite a racket when they all ring at the same time.
if you can substitute an adverb.
The twenty-two clocks, most with mechanical bells capping their faces, make quite a racket when they all ring together.
if you can use an active verb instead of a passive verb.
“Quite a racket is made by the clocks when they all ring at the same time,” can be rewritten as “The clocks make quite …”
if you can replace the prepositional phrase with a possessive.
“To the annoyance of my roommate, the clocks make quite a racket when they all ring together,” can be rewritten as “To my roommate’s annoyance, ….”
An essay thick with prepositional phrases reads slowly, and slow going easily tips over to boring. You don’t want that. When you proofread drafts, thin out the prepositional phrases.