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.