This question poses a paradox of meaning. The general question is whether, if two sentences (x and y) can be used in the same situation, with the same literal meaning, and x and y only differ in that x has morphological affixes that y doesn't, aren't the surplus affixes "meaningless" by the alternation test?

Take this example:

I put the chicken inside a preheated oven.

Wouldn't it make more sense to say:

I put the chicken inside a heated oven.

There is only two states an oven can possibly be in—heated or unheated.

Another example: Does first-class board the plane, or pre-board the plane? What does that mean—to get on before you get on?

  • 2
    Good points; you should become a comedian like Steven Wright. But the point of "preheated" is that you have to turn the oven on before you put the chicken in, and let it get to the full heated temperature, not just part of the way. And "pre-boarding" means to board before the others, not before yourself. Aug 6, 2016 at 23:32
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    I think this is general reference. The American Heritage Dictionary's entry for pre- gives as definition c. "In advance: prepay." "Pre-heat" means "to heat in advance" (of putting the food in the oven) and "pre-board" means "to board in advance" (of other people boarding). Even if you think "heated in advance" is redundant since "heated" is a past participle, the phrase "in advance" is clearly not meaningless in general. And the same goes for the prefix "pre-."
    – herisson
    Aug 6, 2016 at 23:36
  • @sumelic and close voters. I've added a preamble to the question to make it more clear to the editorial board why the question is not general reference.
    – user31341
    Aug 7, 2016 at 1:48
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    Why was this question put on hold? It is a legitimate question that applies to English, particularity pragmatics and prefixes. It is as "on-topic" as any other question posted.
    – user190075
    Aug 7, 2016 at 2:56
  • I meant in the context of those particular words, but there also other words where it seems "meaningless".
    – user190075
    Aug 7, 2016 at 16:10

1 Answer 1


In these cases pre- means "earlier than usual," or "ahead of time". Saying "We will now commence pre-boarding for our gold medallion members" means the same thing as "We will now commence boarding for our gold medallion members," except that it also carries the additional implied meaning: "Gold medallion members are entitled to board earlier than others." Of course, it wouldn't do for the airline to say "Gold medallion members are entitled to privileges that the rest of you aren't. Therefore, we will now commence boarding for our gold medallion members. The rest please wait even longer." The pre- lets them communicate the same thing without actually saying it.

So to answer your question more generally, if you can say two different things in the same situation, it doesn't mean that they mean the same thing.


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