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Prior to Instead of before: A Hyperurbanism

There is no doubt that American English in the twenty-first century is swarming in hyperurbanisms, which dictionary.com defines as “a pronunciation or grammatical form or usage produced by a speaker of one dialect according to an analogical rule formed by comparison of the speaker’s own usage with that of another, more prestigious, dialect and often applied in an inappropriate context, especially in an effort to avoid sounding countrified, rural, or provincial, as in the pronunciation of the word two (to̅o̅) as (tyo̅o̅).”

The tendency to sound “educated” is aided and abetted by another tendency, namely to linguistic hypertrophy, prominently including pleonasms. These two tendencies have conspired to push the simplex (Germanic) preposition, conjunction, and adverb before to the margins of usage in its temporal sense, the bookish (Latinate) compound prior to (sometimes reduced to prior without the to) often being preferred instead.

The compound prior to, it must be admitted, has the possible advantage of being confined to temporal precedence, whereas the simple word before does double duty as a denotation of spatial and temporal position relative to the word it governs. But before has been perfectly serviceable in both meanings since Old English days and is in no need of supersession.

The rise of hyperurbanisms is a direct consequence of the acquisition of the literary language by speakers who in the pre-digital past would have had little access to book learning and/or little desire to acquire it. Be that as it may, such formations are to be avoided as stylistically fulsome by anyone who values plain-speaking.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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