The Prefix Pre

I want to talk about language a little bit because I’ve been listening to a lot of writer-oriented podcasts lately, and some of them are even more language-focused than strictly writing. A few of my current favorites are A Way With Words, Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips For Better Writing (also known shorthand as just “Grammar Girl”), and Writing Excuses. I could probably wax philosophical about each of these podcasts for paragraphs but suffice to say that if you have any interest in writing or language at all, you ought to give these a chance. Writing Excuses and Grammar Girl especially are very short by the standards of many podcasts I would listen to if I had the kind of time they demand (most gaming podcasts are 2+ hours per week), Writing Excuses aims for 15 minutes and Grammar Girl’s are rarely over ten. A Way With Words is an hour-long public radio show but it’s good enough to devote the time to if you like learning about etymology, quirks of language, regional dialects, grammar debates and so on.

It’s interesting to me that in spite of English always being my favorite subject in school and it typically being the topic I was most measurably successful with, I didn’t really pick up a lot of the technical, mechanical bits of English. If you think about it, English as taught in high school when I was there (like 15 years ago—gah) was really a combination of three distinct subjects: Writing (sometimes creative writing), grammar, and literature. Each component could be—perhaps ought to be—taught individually, but I presume for the sake of time they’re rolled together. The problem is that literature and writing take up so much time in an already cramped coursework schedule because you have to read the books, discuss them in class and then write about them. Often it seemed grammar and language mechanics got pushed aside. For example, I don’t recall ever learning that the the -ing noun form of a verb is called a “gerund.” Actually, when Grammar Girl mentioned it, the word rang familiar but I couldn’t have pulled the meaning out of my head with the jaws of life.

The more I listen up on these topics the more I realize that any success I’ve had with English has been an accident of practice and a head for words. That’s a thing, right? People say someone has a “head for numbers” all the time. It makes sense that someone could have a “head for words” and be able to string them together in aesthetically pleasing ways now and then even if they had no clue of the underlying mechanisms they employed. And that’s what I’m finding: Learning about language, I see things that I instinctively do trip up other aspiring writers, typically people much smarter than I. Not that I’m some writing savant, mind, but I’ve come to understand that when people say I wrote something well they unwittingly mean that I accidentally stumbled upon a sequence of words that did what I intended, as opposed to I worked really hard and applied a lot of comprehension to crafting a thought in writing. I feel almost badly about that because I haven’t worked very hard at understanding this writing thing (this from a guy who has been wandering around since he was ten proclaiming he wanted to be a writer).

Point being, I’m trying to learn and actually understand what I’m doing. I figure the worst outcome is that I understand what makes me a crummy writer and best case I get better and, maybe someday, I cause less stress-induced headaches for some editor somewhere.

But all this cramming of wordplay and grammatical information into my head also sends my head spinning into controversy mode and I start to dissect certain language-based pet peeves. One that I have was passed down from my dad, which is the use of the prefix “pre-” as a synonym for “previously.” Its most common application is in the word (which is seemingly universally accepted by dictionary writers as being legitimate) “pre-owned,” referring to a used car. You can also find words like “pre-built,” “pre-assembled,” “pre-filled,” or “pre-screened.” For the most part, you would know what these meant but if you think about it, they’re kind of pointless expressions, and it took a deeper understanding on my part of what the grammatical principles were to understand why I felt that way.

Consider for a moment the term “pre-existing.” The definition for the prefix “pre” is one of two things: Before, as in space (prefix itself, because it refers to a segment of the word ahead of the root) and before, as in time (pre-game, for example as it refers to the time prior to a game). Pre-existing then refers to time: Something that existed before the time in question (often contextualized as the time before applying for insurance and coupled with “condition” meaning a medical condition that existed before the insurance application was submitted). Using “pre-” on a noun, even a gerund, makes sense because it suggests either the time before the noun’s reference point or a space in front of the noun’s object’s space.

But using a prefix like “pre-” on a past tense verb is weird. Using the pet peeve example of “pre-owned” is ambiguous at best. Do we mean before in time? Usually, but my dad has a point when he says technically pre-owned could refer to any time prior to ownership which would really make the phrase refer to new cars: Cars that have never been owned (literally before owned). We don’t usually indicate “pre-” to mean “already” when referring to the time aspect of the prefix, otherwise pre-game would suggest a game that had already been played. Thus, pre-built means something that isn’t built at all and something that is pre-filled is actually empty. We don’t want to use phrasing that suggests a possible synonym when we want the antonym, it creates unnecessary confusion.

Now, a case could be made that the “pre-” in pre-owned refers to space, as if you were lining up owners chronologically and the one before the current was the pre-owner. I guess that’s semi-valid except that hypothetical line doesn’t actually exist anywhere and since we’re actually talking about the car and not the person who owned it we would then have to adjust the word to “pre-ownered” which is just silly because “ownered” isn’t a word at all.

What I think moves this from a mild curiosity into a full fledged peeve is that it’s wholly unnecessary because there are perfectly legitimate, unambiguous words already in existence that mean exactly what is intended, and usually we can just use the root verb to mean whatever the “pre-” is supposed to convey: An item that requires no further assembly isn’t “pre-assembled,” it’s simply assembled. Something isn’t pre-screened, when you get it, it’s merely screened. That’s the beauty of past tense verbs, they already include the temporal clue suggesting past action. Now, pre-owned is a little different because owned has a particular connotation in the context it appears most frequently: No car dealership for example would want to advertise that it was selling “owned cars.” It’s not inaccurate, but it gives the impression they’re running a stolen car store. The fix is simple enough by just saying what they meant all along: “previously owned.”

My opinion is that the “pre-” prefix in front of past tense verbs should be considered ungrammatical. Can anyone think of an example where “pre-” in front of a past tense verb actually clarifies the meaning? I’m interested to know if this bugs anyone else.

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2 thoughts on “The Prefix Pre

  1. Don-aka-Dad

    Well, as noted, it definitely bugs ME. And while “previously owned” would work, there is a much simpler expression that is also very precise as to meaning: “USED!” It’s a used car. For the better part of a century they have been called used cars because the cars had been–dare I say it?–used. This “adspeak” stuff (which also includes things like “gaming” in lieu of the more–and apparently too–precise “gambling” and, in my favorite peanut butter, “evaporated cane juice” a.k.a. SUGAR) makes me nuts. Years ago non-live TV shows were announced as “pre-recorded.” I remember reading a production engineer complaining that simply saying “recorded” would be sufficient and more accurate. Alas, simplicity and accuracy are apparently long out of vogue.

  2. ironsoap Post author

    For the record, I prefer “used” as well, although I do recognize that sometimes context begins to color the definition of a word or phrase and adjustments are justifiable to avoid association. Even long history of use doesn’t negate the fact that phrases like “Used Car Salesman” now carry a decidedly negative connotation. By association, “Used Car” (what you would get from a sleazy Used Car Salesman) brings to mind other negative words, such as, “lemon” (also repurposed just for this negative context). Likewise, no one has a problem with gaming, but people struggle all the time with gambling addictions and gambling debt. Marketing drivel, to my ears, is only true drivel when it’s effort to mask truth either introduces confusion—e.g. pre-owned—or deliberately obfuscates—e.g. evaporated cane juice. I don’t ever LIKE it, but at least when they aren’t being dumb or deceitful I can understand it.

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