Wednesday, September 24, 2003


Since I vented the other day about the misuse of “terror” -- meaning the word, not violent political discourse -- I may as well get “prior to” out of my system. If only I could.

“Prior to,” of course, looms large in our obsession with transforming words into other kinds of words. Some of this is acceptable, usually when language is confronted with something new and must adapt: “Google” has become so ubiquitous it’s moved from proper noun to verb, and we’re urged to “Google it” when, well, whenever anyone asks pretty much anything.

But “prior to” has no such justification, and that’s probably why it’s like fingernails on a chalkboard. What the heathen have done is taken an elegant way to place something in time (“the prior day”) and twisted it into a complicated, shambling mess, a Frankenstein’s monster of a phrase (“the day that was prior to this one” or, to be more fair, “the day prior to this one”).

Even The Associated Press Stylebook urges writers to stay away from “prior to” -- a lot of good it does. The phrase is common enough that it goes unquestioned now, to the extent that sometimes the word it replaced seems to have been forgotten. I once admonished a friend for using “prior to” in an e-mail and he asked blankly, “What’s wrong with prior to?”

“What’s wrong with ‘before’?” I snapped.

A newspaper editor once noted that there is, actually, a reason to use “prior to” instead of “before,” which is to distinguish between the time element and when someone, for instance, is to appear “before the Supreme Court,” meaning “in the presence of.”

I gaped. I was astonished, because he’d completely obviated the idea of context (anyone appearing “before the Supreme Court” in the other sense would have to pop into existence in or before -- er, prior to -- 1788) and ignored the fact that most words have varying meanings. If you need creamed corn, you’ll have to open a new can, but that’s not where you go if you have to use the can. Although, I guess, if you want to, you can.

A good test of that nonsense is to consider the corollary to “prior to,” which I guess would be “subsequent to.” If the editor’s caution were a good one, this would be used in place of “after” as a time element, since “after” can also be behind physically or in rank; in search of; as a result of; in spite of; in the form of, or in honor of; or showing concern, as in someone “asking after” someone else.

Doesn’t happen. A Factiva search comparing use of the two phrases in the last year in the Boston dailies found 2,400 uses of “prior to” and -- dig this -- 10 uses of “subsequent to.”

So why is the time element “before” going the way of the dodo, while the time element “after” thrives?

Google it.

No comments: