Saturday, May 02, 2009

The Ubiquitous PRE-

from David: I heard an advertisement on WTCM-AM-580 that asked the listener to "pre-register." Being of stout belly and thinning mind, I didn't know what to do before I register. I believe the term should be "register in advance". Two commercials later, the station ran a commercial for a funeral home that recommended "preplanning". If I sit down with the funeral staff and make arraignments before I die, am I not "planning" or "planning in advance"?

I remember George Carlin railing against the PRE- epidemic in his book Brain Droppings. Since then, the prefix has crept into words so often that they now appear in dictionaries.

Once upon a time, the "before" concept applied to the word directly attached. Therefore, to prescreen a film was a ridiculous concept; you simply screened it, not screened it before you screened it. To preregister for a class was unthinkable; you must already have registered, so why go through the motions again? To preorder a book was insane; you simply ordered it.

The change in use, I believe, was that the "before" concept shifted to something outside the word itself. To prescreen now meant to screen a film before the general public saw it. To preplan was to plan your funeral before you even felt sick, let alone discovered that you were dying. To pretest was to test the student before letting her sign up for the class. To preorder a book was to order it before the publication date. And to preboard a plane, something that causes many a purist’s teeth to chatter, now means to board before the passengers without special needs.

I wouldn't have endorsed the new use back when it began because of the redundancy factor, but that is now irrelevant. These things are already in place. If you divorce the pre- from the word to which it is attached, as I illustrated above, it makes it all a bit more palatable. But using “in advance,” as you suggest, is a logical and incontrovertible alternative, and it has much to recommend it.

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