Taking aim at multiword prepositions


by Joseph Kimble   |   Michigan Bar Journal


Multiword prepositions — also called compound or complex or phrasal prepositions — are among the most noxious and pervasive small-scale faults in legal writing. C. Edward Good calls them the “compost of our language.”1 Bryan Garner says, “If you’re trying to sound like a bureaucrat, you’ll need lots of phrasal prepositions.”2 And long ago, H.W. Fowler pegged them as “among the worst element in modern English.”3

These bits of flab can usually be replaced with a one-word preposition. A short list of the most common offenders:

  • prior to (= before)
  • with regard to, with respect to, in relation to (= about, concerning, on, for)
  • during the course of (= during, while)
  • for a period of (= for)
  • for the purpose of (= for, to)
  • in the amount of (= for, of)

There are lots more. My book Lifting the Fog of Legalese: Essays on Plain Language (Durham: Carolina Academic Press, 2006), pp 170–71, has a long list.

The following are examples from some recent federal opinions.

“The Administrative Law Judge concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled prior to before January 5, 2007.”

“The LCCA Defendants move for partial summary judgment as to on their liability for any injuries Plaintiff sustained prior to before her transfer to Life Care Center of Auburn.”

Subsequent to After this decision, neither the Secretary nor the plaintiff returned to the district court for entry of a final judgment.”

“Bond’s appearance before a doctor for the purpose of obtaining to obtain a DOT certification was not for the purpose of care or treatment of a physical, mental, or emotional condition.” [Better still: Bond appeared before a doctor to obtain . . . , not to receive care or treatment for . . . .]

“Moreover, with regard to on certain of the items, no claim of exemption is valid.”

“The parties conducted the limited walk-through on December 6, 2017, and have submitted additional information with regard to about the elements not included in the FMP” [probably an unnecessary initialism].

In order to To assert a false-advertising claim, Plaintiffs must have standing both under Article III and the Lanham Act.” [For parallelism, make it “under both.”]

“James’s claim, therefore, is only that Primer cashiered him to avoid paying equity incentives to which James was entitled by virtue of for his past services.” [I’d write “that James was entitled to.”]

“The Court did not explicitly address the arguments made in connection with regarding these requests.”

“A Victoria’s Secret manager told Ruffin where to set up and directed him as to where and how to position his equipment.”

“On motion of Jasper [Jasper’s motion], the action was dismissed as to against him under Rule 12(b), Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.” [Or: “the action against him was dismissed.”]

“The following day, Cheryl withdrew three cashier’s checks in the amount of for $100,000, $111,500, and $150,700.”

“The determination was based upon a failure to report income in the amount of $2,604 and to pay self-employment and FICA taxes thereon” [archaic; try “on it”].

“His punishment was fixed at imprisonment in the penitentiary for a period of five years on the third count, for a period of one year on the fourth count . . . .” [This sentence lumbers on with seven more such uses.]

“The Court will now memorialize [set out?] its rulings with respect to on those issues.”

This column is reprinted from Judicature, Summer 2022.


“Plain Language,” edited by Joseph Kimble, has been a regular feature of the Michigan Bar Journal for 37 years. To contribute an article, contact Prof. Kimble at WMU–Cooley Law School, 300 S. Capitol Ave., Lansing, MI 48933, or at For an index of past columns, visit


1. Good, Mightier Than the Sword (Charlottesville: Blue Jeans Press, 1989), p 73.

2. Garner, The Winning Brief (3d ed) (New York: Oxford Univ Press, 2014), p 325.

3. Fowler, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (Gowers ed, 2d ed) (New York: Oxford Univ Press, 1965), p 102.