A series of ups and downs

When you write, it’s easy for extra words to sneak into the text, words that, on reflection, aren’t needed. Two of those words are up and down. Think about it: how many times do you use them and they don’t add much? They’re just sitting there, occupying space.

Up and down are used in two ways: as prepositions or as adverbs (or prepositional adverbs if you want to get fancy).

Prepositions are words that link nouns, pronouns and phrases to other words in a sentence. They must also be connected to an object. For example, the cat is under the chair. (Under is the preposition. Remove it and you’ve got something a bit surrealist.)

However, you can sometimes use prepositions as adverbs and are not followed by an object. For example, he called her up. Prepositions used in this way are adverbs (or prepositional adverbs).

So why am I having a go at up and down?

One of George Orwell’s famous six rules for effective writing says: If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

Think of how up and down are usually used:

He sat down.
He woke up.
She put the spoon down on the table.
She stood up.

Get rid of the prepositional adverbs and what are you left with?

He sat.
He woke.
She put the spoon on the table.
She stood.

Do they all still make sense? Yes, they do.

Of course, if there’s a creative, stylistic or useful reason for keeping them, then they should remain. But for your everyday writing where clarity and brevity are key, cut them. (I almost wrote ‘cut them out’. See? Another prepositional adverb that can go.)

The flip-side of this, literally, is when you want to emphasise something different. Take a look at three of the sentences when you add the adverbs’ opposites:

He sat up.
She put the spoon up on the table. (Maybe she’s very small.)
She stood down.

You have different – and more interesting – meanings entirely. These sentences could start novels.

In the meantime, go through your writing and eliminate up and down wherever you can.

Other prepositional adverbs that may be able to be removed include in, out, over, under, on or off.

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