Posterior to using prior to, do you feel just a tad pompous?


Why use “prior to” when before works just as well? Linguists and writers have explained — in tones ranging from polite to contemptuous — why “prior to” never needs to see the light of day, variously dismissing its use as affected, pompous, overworked, corporate, or inflated. Glossophilia has nothing to add (except to suggest that “prior to” might be quite useful as a crossword clue). Bryson, Shore, Bernstein, Gowers and Kimble: let it rip!

  • Bill Bryson summed it up nicely in his Dictionary of Troublesome Words: “Before, prior to. There is no difference between these two except length and a certain affectedness on the part of ‘prior to’. To paraphrase [Theodore] Bernstein, if you would use ‘posterior to’ instead of ‘after’, then by all means use ‘prior to’ instead of ‘before’.”
  • Michael Shore on his Language Lore blog brands the use of “prior to” instead of before as a hyperurbanism.
  • Publisher’s Weekly describes its usage: “Sometimes termed pompous or affected, prior to is a synonym of before that most often appears in rather formal contexts, such as the annual reports of corporations.”
  • Theodore M. Bernstein in The Careful Writer: “Prior to is a ‘‘faddish affectation for before. Would you say posterior to in place of after?’’
  • Roy H. Copperud in American Usage and Style: “Prior to is ‘pompous in the sense before.’’
  • Bryan A. Garner in A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage: ‘‘Prior to is a terribly overworked lawyerism. Only in rare contexts is it not much inferior to before.’’
  • Sir Ernest Gowers, The Complete Plain Words: ‘‘There is no good reason to use prior to as a preposition instead of before. Before is simpler, better known and more natural, and therefore preferable.’’

And Kimble puts it most eloquently:

  • Joseph Kimble in A Modest Wish List for Legal Writing: ‘‘Prior to takes the booby prize for the most common inflated phrase in legal and official writing. Why would anyone prefer it to before? Try to think of a single literary title or line that uses prior to. . . . By itself, prior to may seem insignificant. But it often leads to clumsy, indirect constructions . . . . More important, a fondness for prior to may indicate a fondness for jargon—and a blind resistance to using plain words. That resistance, that cast of mind, is in large part responsible for the state of legal writing.’’


2 thoughts on “Posterior to using prior to, do you feel just a tad pompous?

  1. Jeff Spurgeon

    Prior to reading your post, I hadn’t given a thought to the phrase, but the assertions are correct: “Before” is simple and simply better.
    I haven’t read much legal writing, but what I have read is still not as fulsome* as the academic writing I’ve seen.
    He’s not the only critic to do it, I’m sure, but Mr. Tommasini often describes singers — especially basses, as I think about it — as “stentorian.” The meaning of “stentorian” is loud. Does Tommasini mean to praise the singer for the mere volume he or she produces? He might. (Loudness is often a great virtue.) Wouldn’t “loud” be better and simpler? Well, yes, but it doesn’t sound as…grand. Or as pompous or pretentious. I don’t know what he intends to mean, but I’m sure it isn’t just “loud.”

    *Should I have used a simpler word here, like “awful” or “offensive”? But I LIKE “fulsome”! Probably the same way the critic likes “stentorian,” right?

  2. Jeff Spurgeon

    Oh, one other thing: Nice beefcake. I wonder how many more people read this post because of the picture.

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