February 12, 2009

Weekly Language Usage Tips: prior to or before, submittal or submission

Posted in pleonasm, prior to or before, submission or submittal at 7:25 am by dlseltzer


Not really a sighting, but I went to a seminar this week at which the speaker was recounting an argument that broke out at a meeting on a rather contentious issue. The speaker described the ensuing squabble as a ”vibrant discussion.” I liked that a lot.

Tip 1: prior to or before, superfluous words

Today’s first tip is about a controversial phrase, ‘prior to.’ The debate is about whether the phrase is grammatically correct since ‘prior’ is an adjective. As Rhett Butler said, ”Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” There’s a simple reason that ‘prior to’ should be used only sparingly, and it has nothing to do with grammar and prepositional phrases and the like. It is this: ‘prior to’ is pretentious and wordy. Why use ‘prior to’ when ‘before’ is a perfectly good word just waiting to be used? Lovers of language have this to say about the use of ‘prior to:’

There is no difference between the two except length and a certain inescapable affectedness on the part of prior to.
Bill Bryson (all references can be found at the end of this newsletter.)

For a less stuffy and bureaucratic tone, replace prior to or prior with before or earlier whenever possible.
Jack Lynch

Previous to and prior to are grammatically blameless, but that does not justify their use as substitutes for before because they are thought to be grander or more genteel.
H.W. Fowler

Prior to is preferred to before by most medical writers. There are grammatical reasons why prior to is incorrect but a better reason for writing before is that ‘before is simpler, better known and more natural, and therefore preferable’ (Gowers). Bryson is less forgiving and describes prior to as ‘longer, clumsier, and awash with pretension.’ Trask writes, ”This ghastly thing has recently become almost a disease.’
Goodman and Edwards (This book is aimed at medical writers and is highly recommended.)

You get the point. In the same vein, here is a list of some other superfluous words or pleonasms that should be avoided along with simpler replacements.

attach together attach
basic fundamentals basics or fundamentals
close proximity near
combined together combined
descend down descend
end result result
exactly the same identical
fall down fall
final result result
in order to to
in the event that if
subsequent to after
despite the fact that although
because of the fact that because
in light of because
owing to the fact that because
refer back refer
sum total total or sum

If you can think of other offending phrases, please let me know, and we will include them in an updated list.

Tip 2: submittal and submission, transmittal and transmission

We are quickly coming up on a major proposal deadline, and everyone is hurrying to finalize their submissions. Or should that be ‘their submittals?’

The correct form is ‘submission.’ The ‘submission’ is the thing that is being tendered while ‘submittal’ refers to the act of submitting or putting something forward.

So while we prepare our application for submittal to NIH, the application itself is the submission.

Keep in mind that the cover letters that accompany our submissions are ‘letters of submittal’ or ‘letters of transmittal.’

Finally, while technically correct, we should never refer to our proposal as a transmission; we should leave the transmission to the realm of cars and engines where it is more commonly used.


Bryson, B. Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words: A writer’s guide to getting it right. Broadway Books: New York, 2002.

Lynch, J. The English Language: A user’s guide. Focus Publishing: Newburyport, MA, 2008.

Fowler, HW. A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, Second Edition. Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1986. (This is the version I have; there are newer versions out there.)

Goodman, NW and Edwards, MB. Medical Writing: A prescription for clarity, Third Edition. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2006.



  1. John Gulla said,

    I would like to receive these weekly tips. Thank you.

  2. bernie said,

    My a priori hypothesis before reading the objections to the use of prior was that I would not be inclined to change my practice of using the word. Although I am a fan of Bill Bryson, I found his ‘longer, clumsier, and awash with pretension.’ comment to be rather pretentious. Speaking of brevity, why not just state that it is “pretentious” rather than being “awash with pretension”?

    The use of “refer back” has more meaning than simply “refer”, at least in daily medical practice. The first person who sends a patient is “referring” the patient. When the patient is sent back to the initial clinician, they are being “referred back”. To simply state that you are “referring” the patient implies, at least in my mind, that one has never seen the patient.

  3. dls said,

    Thanks for your comments. Good point about ‘awash with pretension’ but I lump ‘prior to’ with ‘in order to” and the use of the word ‘usage’ when one really means ‘use.’ I think we all have a tendency to want to sound smart (this is especially true with my junior faculty- I’m constantly telling them that they don’t have to try to sound smart–they’re doctors, they are smart). While ‘prior to’ is not the worst sin, I would always strive (with varying degrees of success) for simplicity. Excellent point about referring back in Medicine. It is a very important distinction. Thanks for writing and reading!

  4. bryna said,

    Fabulous as always. Have to admit (which is why I’m writing back) that
    when I apply the Linguistic native speaker test (“does this sound
    correct” or “which sounds more correct”) the first 6 pleonasms sound
    familiar and quite correct, even though I am quite conscious of the
    redundancy. Soooo embarrassing….I hope that I’ve only heard them said
    so often that they “sound correct” and haven’t said them myself…….

  5. dls said,

    There are others that are used all the time, tuna fish and safe haven. Lots of fun. You might like this website I came across yesterday. Impressive. http://www.economicexpert.com/a/List:of:redundant:expressions.htm

  6. dlseltzer said,

    Bryna said,
    fantastic! Ok, I am guilty of many pleonasms (by the way, I love that word, pleonasm)….but here’s my defense. Many of these are used for emphasis, such as, “be home by 12 midnight” could say midnight but the deadline is emphasized by using both….that’s my only defense, otherwise I fall back to well, I know better, but they sound “natural” to my native English ear…you know the linguists descriptive (not prescriptive) grammars……I think the note on the website about their usage is an excellent statement. Hope you are well and enjoying February as best as one can!

  7. aldamb said,

    I should like to add to your list of pleonasms ‘meet with’.

    I also object to the use (particularly prevalent in Ireland) of ‘avail’ as a non-reflexive verb when it should surely appear as ‘avail myself/yourself etc).

  8. aldamb said,

    also ‘outside of’.

  9. Vicki said,

    I’m an editor working with medical writers. Their use of “prior to” and “following” in place of “before” and “after” drives me crazy. One defended her use, and resistance to – nay, rejection of – my advice to change these by insisting that “this is scientific writing, and this is the way we write.” – In reply I wanted to ask her (but out of professional courtesy didn’t): At what point in your life, or youth, did you START saying “prior to” in place of “before”? (Could it be when you wanted to start sounding professional, scientific, scholarly, erudite – like in graduate school when you were reading (dense) scholarly prose? Surely you didn’t grow up saying “Mom, prior to going to school this morning, I ate breakfast.” – No, you said “Before the prom” and “Before I failed the exam” and “Can I have my allowance prior to doing my chores?” “Prior to” crept in only when you started adopting pretentions. (Also known as “scholar-ese” “scientific-ese” — I’ve just coined some ugly words).

    • dlseltzer said,

      Love your comments. I keep trying. Best, deb

  10. Anonymous said,

    ‘still remains’ always struck me as unnecessary, when ‘remains’ will suffice.

  11. tabletopic said,

    Can I receive your post automatically?

    • dlseltzer said,


    • dlseltzer said,

      I apologize–I can’t find your email address? Could you resend this, so I can add you to my listserv? thanks, deb

  12. I am looking for someone that is more interested in what I said rather than how I said IT.

    • Anonymous said,

      But how you say something determines what you say. It’s not necessarily critical in cases of tautology, but a lot of what people say is ambiguous as they haven’t taken the trouble to be precise.

  13. jeremy.gove@gmail.com said,

    I see ‘prior to’ frequently, and it certainly irks me. The one at the end is also one of my pet peeves: ‘let me know’ instead of ‘tell me’. ‘Let’ seems passive to me, so letting someone know means to me that one is not preventing the other from knowing, but not necessarily helping the other come to know something, either.

  14. virgaba said,

    How do we receive your posts automatically ?

    • dlseltzer said,

      I’ve added you to the list. Welcome.

      • virgaba said,

        Much appreciated.

        23.09.2014 18:38 tarihinde, Language Usage Weblog yazdı: > WordPress.com >

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