The Power of a Preposition


How a tiny word can really pack a punch.

For the last twenty-five years, the Bad Sex in Fiction Award has been given to a writer who has written an appallingly bad sex scene in an otherwise good novel. According to The Literary Review, ‘the purpose of the prize is to draw attention to poorly written, perfunctory or redundant passages of sexual description in modern fiction.’

I had a quick look at some of the past winners’ descriptions (purely for research purposes of course!) There is often an over-naming of body parts, too many inappropriate comparisons, unfortunate word choices and a general sense of excess. When it comes to good sex scenes, less is definitely more!

Maybe modern writers should take a look at the seventeenth century poet John Donne. Donne certainly wasn’t coy, but he understood that implication and innuendo can be far more powerful than gratuitousness. In his poem ‘To his Mistress Going to Bed’ he expresses a man’s plea for intimacy with a woman:

Licence my roving hands, and let them go,
Before, behind, between, above, below.

The four prepositions in the second line are far more erotic than any overt description. A list of apparently bland grammatical terms perfectly describes his intentions!

Shakespeare understood this too. In the play Othello, wicked Iago uses well-placed prepositions to intensify Othello’s horror at a description of his wife’s apparent infidelity. When Iago implies to Othello that Desdemona has slept with Cassio, Othello asks ‘with her?’ and Iago replies ‘With her, on her, what you will.’ Those innocent looking prepositions conjure a terrible reality in Othello’s mind, and his unfounded jealousy is cranked up several notches as a result.

Neither writer uses a single explicitly sexual term – they just employ clever grammar - and inference does the rest.

So if we want to avoid receiving the Bad Sex in Fiction Award, maybe we need to look to our prepositions! They certainly can pack a punch!


StyleGill ThompsonComment