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Prior considerations

Q: There seems to be a trend in conversation these days to replace the more traditional “prior” with “previous” in certain prepositional phrases. For example, in Leonard Lopate’s recent interview with Alan Greenspan on WNYC, Greenspan uses the phrase “previous to that.” The word “prior” seems more appropriate here. Is it grammatically correct to use “previous” in such instances?

A: The phrases “prior to” and “previous to” have long histories, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Both date back to the 1600s.

They’re prepositions that can act as either adjectives or adverbs. We’ll invent an example with both kinds: “Construction prior to [adjective] 1900 is reviewed prior to [adverb] demolition.” In either case, “previous to” could be substituted, with no grammatical error.

In fact, both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) define “previous to” as “prior to” or “before.”

Grammar is one thing and style is another, however. “Prior” and “previous” all by themselves can be used as adjectives (“prior construction,” “previous regulations”) without raising any eyebrows.

But many style guides frown on the adverbial use of “prior to” and “previous to” in the sense of  “before.” Some critics have complained that “previous to” should be “previously to” when used as an adverb.

“Prior to” is more common in ordinary usage than “previous to.” (Google: “prior to,” 391 million hits; “previous to,” 2.5 million.) But we don’t particularly like either one. Using them for “before” is like using “subsequent to” for “after.” We much prefer “before” if it works.

Now we’ll sign off, prior to becoming cross-eyed.

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