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.

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