Previous vs. prior

  • The adjectives prior and previous are both useful synonyms of earlier and past, and there is no substantive difference between them. Some people do make various distinctions between them in their personal usage, but none of these distinctions are borne out in broader usage. The words are usually interchangeable.




    Mayor Robert Dean Smith was arrested Wednesday on allegations he violated a probation from a previous drunken driving conviction. []

    The two have a prior relationship from their days with the New York Giants and will likely play a significant role in offensive game-planning. [Milwaukee Journal Sentinel]

    Pawlenty, the previous governor of Minnesota, delivered a speech. [NPR]

    In her prior position as San Francisco District Attorney, she was instrumental in securing legal protections for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community. [Lez Get Real]


    1. In your last example I see a difference between prior and previous. “In her prior position as San Francisco District Attorney” means that this could be one or two or five positions earlier. “In her previous position as SF D.A.” means that she was the SF D.A. right before her current position, i.e. immediately prior to her current position. So previous = immediately prior.

      • I disagree entirely. In my opinion “prior” means the immediately previous one, and “previous” means any instance in the past. The complete opposite of what you’ve said.

        • Both comments above tend to illustrate the original point… neither exclusively means one thing or the other. The words are indeed interchangable.

        • stellabystarlite says

          You are all s*** out of your minds. They’re synonyms.

    2. Maria, You are SO right! Good Call!

    3. Do you mean “but none of these distinctions IS borne out…”?

    4. Bruce Hurley says

      It seems awkward to say that I read something on a prior page of a book or that I preferred my prior keyboard. Because of this, previous seems more suitable for position or physicality, whereas prior is more suitable for time. In other instances they are indeed synonymous.

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