Plain Language

A Pox on Prior To

by Joseph Kimble

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‘‘Plain Language’’ is a regular feature of the Michigan Bar Journal, edited by Joseph Kimble for the Plain English Subcommittee of the Publications and Website Advisory Committee. We seek to improve the clarity of legal writing and the public opinion of lawyers by eliminating legalese. Want to contribute a plain-English article? Contact Prof. Kimble at Thomas Cooley Law School, P.O. Box 13038, Lansing, MI 48901. For information about the Plain English Committee, see our website—



Theodore M. Bernstein, The Careful Writer 346 (1972): Prior to is a ‘‘faddish affectation for before. Would you say posterior to in place of after?’’

Roy H. Copperud, American Usage and Style: The Consensus 305 (1980): Prior to is ‘‘pompous in the sense before.’’

Bryan A. Garner, A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage 692 (2d ed. 1995): ‘‘Prior to is a terribly overworked lawyerism. Only in rare contexts is it not much inferior to before.’’

Sir Ernest Gowers, The Complete Plain Words 110 (Sydney Green­baum & Janet Whitcut eds., rev. ed. 1986): ‘‘There is no good reason to use prior to as a preposition instead of before. Before is simpler, better known and more natural, and therefore preferable.’’

Joseph Kimble, A Modest Wish List for Legal Writing, 79 Mich. B.J. 1574, 1577 (2000): ‘‘Prior to takes the booby prize for the most common inflated phrase in legal and official writing. Why would anyone prefer it to before? Try to think of a single literary title or line that uses prior to....By itself, prior to may seem insignificant. But it often leads to clumsy, indirect constructions....More important, a fondness for prior to may indicate a fondness for jargon—and a blind resistance to using plain words. That resistance, that cast of mind, is in large part responsible for the state of legal writing.’’

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