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I want to say that once the Christmas tree had been decorated, the kids started to look at it in awe.

The sentence that I might write may read:

The fir-tree has/had (already) been decorated and looked at by the kids in awe.

What sort of embarrasses me is the sequence of the prepositions "at by" and the near "in' which to me, seems rather clumsy. "

…looked at in awe by the kids",

again, to me, reads no less clumsy.

Is there a way to convey the idea some other way, grammatical and colloquial/readable?

My variant is:

The fir-tree (having been) decorated, the kids looked at it in awe;

although the "at it in awe" part to me, reads somewhat funny too, like "ta-ti-ti-ta" or somewhat like that.

  • You're imagining a rhythm that doesn't take into account natural parsing rhythms, which would introduce a pause before the prepositional phrase in awe: "...looked at it....in awe". – Tᴚoɯɐuo Dec 28 '17 at 0:37
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Your second answer was the closest. I would tend to write something like:

The tree had already been decorated and the kids gazed upon it, awe dawning on their faces.

This sentence puts more emphasis on the fact that the kids were looking at it, as your intent seems to have been. It's also a bit flowery, as my personal style tends to be, but it gets the meaning across. I find it less awkward to describe the people doing the action, rather than the action itself in cases like this.

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I find the passive (looked at by the kids) the problem, stylistically. There is also an ambiguity: did the kids do both the decorating and the looking? It's not clear

If you want a short phrase you could switch the sentence around to make the kids the subject.

The kids looked in awe at the decorated tree.

If you want to keep the tree at the start use two coordinated clauses:

The tree had been decorated, and the kids looked at it in awe.

Finally if you want to retain as much of your structure, you can choose a different verb. To "look at in awe" is similar in meaning to "admire"

The tree had already been decorated, and it was admired by the kids.

My shortest alternative sentence, which says almost the same as yours in half the space is:

The kids admired the decorated tree.

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A very simple way to describe your situation is

The tree was decorated and the kids were in awe.

It is obvious from the context the kids are in awe of the tree.

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