When writing a sentence, I sometimes get stuck with the order of prepositional phrases if there happen to be a couple of them in a series. I cannot seem to place them next to the part they intend to modify, which ruins the sentence. I googled this particular problem and watched a few YouTube tutorials, which, unfortunately, has confused the matter further. I want to keep it simple and find out whether there's a way to get it right.

Another problem I have with them is that I sometimes cannot decide whether they should be punctuated or not, to make things clear.

Just to give you a small example

There was a great interview... 1) of Mary about her book 2) in NYT 3) by John

I cannot put these phrases into their correct order, and punctuate if or where necessary.

Please help. Thanks.

2 Answers 2


The longest and most complicated phrases go last. For your example, that puts "1) of Mary about her book" last.

The principle is that English is a predominantly right-branching language. This was proposed as a general principle by Victor Yngve, A Model and an Hypothesis for Language Structure, and argued against by Noam Chomsky (in Aspects). It is the basis for Ross's proposal of a rule Heavy NP Shift that moves long or complicated NPs in a VP to the right (in his dissertation Constraints on Variables in Syntax). It is involved in some of the constraints discussed by Susumu Kuno and mentioned in McCawley's The Syntactic Phenomena of English.

  • There was a great interview in NYT by John of Mary about her book. Are you sure this sounds even correct, let alone natural? Or do you suggest placing a comma after by John. Thanks, again.
    – axomna
    Jun 23, 2015 at 21:41
  • @axomna, the comma would help. Also, I like "with" better than "of". But anyhow, maybe the theory doesn't work well for this case. I'm not taking a position on the facts. I doubt that "by John of Mary" is actually a prepositional phrase -- it looks like two, to me. But it's your example.
    – Greg Lee
    Jun 23, 2015 at 21:56

You want to get the prepositional phrases as close as possible to what they modify without writing something misleading like "about her book by John." If you have enough such phrases, this might be impossible without restructuring the sentence:

In a great piece in the *NYT*, John interviewed Mary about her book.

or splitting it in two:

John interviewed Mary about her book.  It made for a great story in the *NYT*.
  • How about these: there was a great interview in NYT by John, of Mary about her book, or _there was a great interview of Mary about her book, in NYT, by John.
    – axomna
    Jun 23, 2015 at 19:13

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