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Tuesday, January 15, 2019

In Other Words: “Prewarning": Epic Rant Ahead

Found at a local gas station.

I don’t rant often, but when I do it tends to be epic. In fact, I am confident that it will come up at my funeral. Someone is bound to say, “Remember how he would rant about pre-treat or pre-pay?” If that happens, then my life served a greater purpose.

Let me explain.

My last few decades have been spent prewriting this very sentence.  I was recently pre-approved for a credit card.  I need to pre-pay before I pump gas. There is a dark force loose in the English language - the abuse of the perfectly good prefix pre-.

To be honest, this pet peeve just makes my head want to explode.  Granted, the explosive debris would consist of mostly hot air, scattered lyrics from obscure rock songs, commercial jingles, and obscure etymologies, but nonetheless, it would explode. It’s such a frequent rant of mine that friends needle me about it. In fact, my social media usually fills up with photos of “pretreated” roads. Can you hear the snickering?

18 N. Fort Thomas Ave in the Hiland Building. 
Pre- means “before,” “prior to.” “early,” or “in front of.” So when the prefix is attached to another word it means “before” whatever root word it’s attached to.  Preview means to “see before.” Perfectly good word. “Preclude” is different from “conclude” because the prefix adds a new dimension to the root word. Prediction is different from contradiction. So I am just baffled when I see that I have to pre-pay at the gas station.  Because either I pay or I don’t.

I mean, am I pre-paying for gas as I eat breakfast? Granted, I am fillng my “tank” and it might contain gas but that’s another story. Our language has the ability to be precise or vague but to intentionally muddy it in hopes of achieving clarity is absurd.

The most offensive uses of the prefix is “pre-treat” as in “The county will pre-treat the roads.” What the what? Either you treat or you don’t. I know. I’m channeling Yoda. Go ahead and laugh if you wish, but as soon as you put something on that road, it has been treated. It doesn’t matter if it’s beet juice or salt, it’s been treated.

Another pet peeve is “pre-order.” Uhm. Either you order or you don’t. Reserve is a fine word to use but one might think it’s too fancy or long and doesn’t have the ring of early cash. Or should I say “precash.”

One big box hardware store used to claim that they “pre-selected” items for their customers. What the what? Can you hear my teeth grinding?

Perhaps you pre-read the newspaper. Nope. You scanned it. Either you read or you don’t.

I had to turn the channel when the host of a home improvement show told his audience to “pre-drill.” Seriously? Those holes are called pilot holes. You drill a pilot hole. You either drill or you don’t.

I couldn’t believe what I heard from the state education department as they directed teachers on how to conduct “pre-writing” activities for students. Good grief! Either you write or you don’t. That period before actually writing is called planning. Planning is a wonderful word. And brainstorming is far more colorful term as I imagine the mental weather map on that. “Pre-writing” is a lazy word.

Pre- is a perfectly good prefix and serves our thinking well, but when it is used in such a ridiculous way it makes the speaker look silly and lazy.

This penchant for tagging pre- to words to create nonsensical words in the hopes of brevity or even clarity just muddies the thinking waters. Can one pre-muddy the waters?

Everyone has a pet peeve. Maybe it’s chewing with an open mouth. Not covering your mouth when you cough. Talking during a movie. Not washing hands in the restroom. Loud cellphone conversations. Not picking up after the dog. Making duck face. Mine is the abuse of a perfectly good prefix. I just want to run my fingernails down a chalkboard.

Feel free to read this at my funeral.


  1. I love you Chuck, even though you stole my rant. And let's not forget my all-time favorite, "pre-register." It's almost as good as the recipe phrase, "pre-heat" the oven.

  2. As long as we are ranting I cannot stand “what the what?” What exactly does that mean?!?