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Just in the last four years, I've noticed that the word prior is increasingly used in place of before. Prior has become customary enough that people commonly leave off 'to' in employing it: "Most of the guests appeared at 8:00, but I arrived prior."

I don't know why this disturbs me so, but it does. My question to the linguists, though, is why it's happening now (in North America, anyway.) Both are two syllable words, both convey the same message, more or less -what's driving this change?

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Where in North America? –  Samuel Edwin Ward Dec 4 '12 at 14:36

3 Answers 3

I'm inclined to suspect the recency illusion as suggested above.

Another possibility is the related frequency illusion. You heard a particularly egregious use of prior when before would have served even better. It irritated you, so it stuck in your mind. Then the next time somebody used prior it stood out for that reason. Suddenly it seems that everyone is constantly using prior. You can see how it goes hand in hand with the recency illusion.

That said, words and phrases do go through fashions and fads. It's perfectly possible that you are moving in circles where there's a current fad favouring prior, because some people have decided it sounds better, and are favouring it which in turn leads others too. This certainly happens in business writing in particular. If so, the good news is that it'll probably die down again.

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I'm with you, Fortunate1. I observe a lot of "prior to" in speech wherever I would have used "before" (As in, "I stopped by the post office prior to going to the market.", where I would have said "I stopped by the post office before going to the market.").

And I, too am annoyed or disturbed by this (to my ears) growing tendency in the US. I, too, don't know why it disturbs me; perhaps I react as if it is unnecessarily hi-faluting.

My linguistics-related guess is that the difference between the two is stress. I believe that we're moving towards an increase in first-syllable stress in general, not merely in this word choice.

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Now that I've seen the suggestions by John Lawler and Jon Hanna that our perceptions of increased frequency might be due to attention, rather than actual statistics, I've researched more. The Merriam-Webster site (merriam-webster.com/dictionary/prior%20to) says "prior to" is first attested in 1706. It also characterizes the usage as sounding "pompous or affected". There's no suggestion that first-syllable stress has anything to do with its preference to "before". Oh well. –  CaptainEd Feb 13 '13 at 20:33

I searched the Corpus of Contemporary American English and from what I can see the word "before" is used at least 17x as often as "prior", and if you limit the search to just 2011 it's used 26x as often as "prior". So I think your premise is flawed.

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My observation is empirical, S&N; I'm thinking that your CCAE survey identifies all instances of the words' usage, whereas my conjecture derived from the particular (and narrower) grammatical change I've noticed. –  fortunate1 Dec 17 '11 at 3:16
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@fortunate1: I'm still not convinced that what you're seeing is actually taking place. Is this something you've documented? Is there a narrower usage you'd like me to search in the COCA? –  Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Dec 17 '11 at 3:20
    
I only have my ears to go by, S&N [I work in a very talkative environment] -no more documented than that. Thanks for offering to do further researches, though. –  fortunate1 Dec 17 '11 at 3:25
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@fortunate1: CCAE is also empirical. Maybe in your environment, the culture is to use that word, but outside, it really hasn't caught on at all. –  Mitch Dec 17 '11 at 3:45
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