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If I have four moments in time (A, B, C, D), where moment D is the present, would previous, preceding, and prior be interchangeable as adjectives to refer to moments A-C? Is one of them more likely to refer to moment C, the moment immediately before the present?

The sources I've been searching (excluding OED, which I can't access) call them synonyms and/or interchangeable when meaning "before". One stipulation I've read and whose veracity I can't attest, states (in comparing prior and previous) that

usually 'prior experience' is experience of the same type.

That doesn't help me. My specific need is in referring to moments B and C but NOT moment A. I would say something like,

"Moment D is the same as the previous two moments", and the statement would unambiguously refer to moments B and C.

PS - I have very little space on the page to make this statement, which is why I can't be more specific.

Thanks for any usage advice or collocation stats on these terms.

  • 2
    Generally, "the previous/preceding moment" is C; while "a previous/preceding moment" could be any of them. In the plural, this distinction would be "the two previous/previous" or "the previous/preceding two" versus "two previous/preceding" (no article). I personally don't like using "prior" for this meaning, but I can't tell you why (or if) it's wrong. – Peter Shor May 25 '15 at 12:09
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    And Google Ngrams shows that both previous and preceding are used frequently for this meaning, but prior is not, justifying my vague intuition that you shouldn't use prior. – Peter Shor May 25 '15 at 12:15
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    Given moments A, B, C, and D, could it be perceived as a mistake on my part, namely that I am simply forgetting moment A, if I refer to "the previous/preceding two moments"? – tylerharms May 26 '15 at 8:35
  • No doubt prior and previous are interchangeable when referring to time or order. But I find the phrase 'previous to' ungrammatical, and prefer 'prior to' or 'previously'. Maybe I'm wrong, but it just sounds clumsy to me. – Brenda Carr Jul 7 '17 at 20:32
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Since you can't access OED, I'm quoting the definitions:

prior

  • Existing or coming before in time, order, or importance:

previous:

  • Existing or occurring before in time or order:

precede:

  • Come before (something) in time:

  • Come before in order or position:

None of them unambiguously preclude A, in my opinion.

You need more words. You should say something like:

"Moment D is the same as the two moments immediately preceding it"

  • Thanks for the OED info. "Moment D is the same as the two moments immediately preceding it" then? Is that the best option? Or should I go with "prior to" or previous to" it? (I need to keep Moment D the subject in my phrasing.) – tylerharms May 25 '15 at 12:13
  • @tylerharms: Charting into opinion territory here, but I recommend using preceding. For some reason it connotes to me the sense of urgency you're possibly striving for. – Tushar Raj May 25 '15 at 12:16
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For what it's worth, I agree with Tushar Raj on the need for 'immediately' to remove all ambiguity, even if the OED didn't help.

I often find that when I have a feeling about a word having meaning a shade different than its supposedly interchangeable synonyms, it usually comes from its etymological roots. While it's still not concretely definitive, Etymology Online can help. In this case, I think this may inform the subconscious coloring of meanings.

  • Precede (Mid-French, Latin; ~1400s): the 'cede' root means "walk," as in, to walk before.
  • Previous (Latin; ~1600s): the 'vious' root comes from 'via,' meaning "road."
  • Prior (Old Latin, via Late Old English; 1714--but this is misleading, as it's likely older than the other two terms): the root is 'prae,' but includes not only "former, previous" like the others, but also "first, superior, and [fore]father."

So, maybe in this light, 'precede' implies an animate or active thing that came before; 'previous,' perhaps suggests something more relative between the two in time, space, or similar; and then 'prior,' not just a thing before, but greater in rank or at least that it broke ground or led the way substantially.

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My understanding has been since 5th grade that preceding refers to an event occurring immediately before the one to which it is being compared, but that prior refers to a time that occurred before the one being referenced, while previous refers to an event that occurred before the one being referenced.

This understanding was reiterated in high school in debate class. The teachers I had in each of those two grades were sticklers for precise usage.

  • What about former? – skan Dec 19 '18 at 11:27
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This is not an answer to the title of your question, but is a response to your stated problem:

  • All the moments after Moment A are the same.
  • Moment D is the same as the [other] moments after Moment A.

Putting after into italics or some other distinguishing font may clarify matters.

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I use them this way: Preceding: Anything that happened right before D. Prior: The first of two (with latter) Previous: Anytime before D.

  • What about former? – skan Dec 19 '18 at 11:26

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