Posted by: episystechpubs | June 23, 2015

Editor’s Corner: Prior to Before

Here’s one that “gets my goat” (more on that phrase tomorrow): the use of prior to instead of before. Before is a perfectly fine word to describe a time in the past, something that has happened already, or maybe something that should happen ahead of something else. For example:

Stir the first five ingredients before you add the egg.

Before you start arguing about using prior to instead of before, I have three things for you…and no, they aren’t three wishes. The first is a section from The Grammar Devotional, by Mignon Fogarty (Grammar Girl); the second is an entry from Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words: A Writer’s Guide to Getting It Right, by Bill Bryson; the third is a statement from me on behalf of the Symitar editors.

Overcome Your Past: Prior to Versus Before

(Mignon Fogarty)

Prior’s primary use is as an adjective…

I’m sorry; I have a prior engagement.

Prior to is an acceptable idiom, but when you are tempted to use it, in the interest of simplicity, ask yourself if before would work just as well.

Prior to becoming an award-winning clown, Bob was an accountant. (acceptable)

Before becoming an award-winning clown, Bob was an accountant. (better)

Squiggly left the party prior to the raid. (acceptable)

Squiggly left the party before the raid. (better)

Before, prior to

(Entry from Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words)

There is no difference between these two except length and a certain inescapable affectedness on the part of prior to. To paraphrase Bernstein, if you would use posterior to instead of after, then by all means use prior to instead of before.

Use “Before”

Kara, on behalf of the Symitar Editors

We read millions of words each year. In most of the documentation, letters, email, installation instructions, and other submissions, before is more appropriate than prior to. To put it bluntly, prior to can sound pompous. To be even more blunt, people often misuse it when they intend to say previous. To avoid the double-whammy of sounding pompous and being incorrect, stick with before.

Kara Church

Technical Editor, Advisory

Symitar Documentation Services


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