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September 20th, 2006

Preplanned / pretexting

by Barbara Wallraff

Debra Wells, of Windsor, Ontario, writes: “‘Preplanned,’ referring to anything, annoys me. If something is planned, obviously it’s dealt with before the fact. Since a funeral, for example, is planned, does ‘preplanned’ mean those involved are planning to plan? Who comes up with these phrases?”

Dear Debra: Do you mean, besides “preplanned funeral,” phrases like “preapproved mortgage,” “preboarded passengers,” “precooked food,” “pre-owned car” and “prerecorded message”? Usually organizations or industries, rather than individuals, come up with such foolishness. And industries have the power to make silly phrases stick by using them over and over again until they become, simply, the way it’s said. (Bank customer: “Good morning. I’d like to try to get approved for a mortgage today, before I decide on a house to buy.” Loan officer: “You mean you want to be preapproved.” Customer: “Aren’t I ‘preapproved’ now -- until you’ve approved my application?” Loan officer: “No, you won’t be preapproved until I approve you ...”)

People who are thoughtful about language can’t win in situations like this. If we insist that a pre-approved mortgage or a pre-planned funeral is the same as an approved mortgage or a planned funeral, those who specialize in mortgages or funerals will just write us off as cranks. They know better than we do the terms that have to do with their specialty. My advice is to pay attention to the terms they use, make sure you understand them, use the terms the way they do and don’t worry any more about it.

The words to beware of are the ones that aren’t any industry’s jargon and that make us sound as if we’re not paying attention to ourselves. “Precooked food” -- all right, I can stand that. “Pre-prepared” -- sigh. People in various specialized fields use it, but still I’d try not to, because the two “pre”s in a row sound idiotic. “Pre-reserve” -- no. Similarly, “make advance reservations” -- no. “Reserve” and “make reservations” do the job perfectly well. You may prefer to draw the line elsewhere, but this is where I draw it and refuse to cross.

Doug Gordon, of Rochester Hills, Mich., writes: “The recent Hewlett-Packard boardroom dispute introduced (to me, at least) the word ‘pretexting,’ which means ‘obtaining information under a false pretext.’ OK, I’ll buy that. But I have seen a few articles recently where the word was hyphenated: ‘pre-texting.’ This really threw me for a loop. The problem is that the verb ‘to text’ means ‘to send a text message to someone’s cell phone.’ So my brain interprets ‘pre-texting’ as meaning something that is done before sending a text message. I had to look up ’ in the online encyclopedia Wikipedia to make sure I knew what it meant. Does this make any sense to you?”

Dear Doug: Yes, it does. And thank you for demonstrating that hyphens can actually matter. A “pretext” is one thing, and deriving the verb “pretext” from it is within the bounds of acceptable English. A “pre-text” and “to pre-text” ought to be other things, just as you say. The rules for where to use hyphens are not exact. But one reliable rule is: Don’t stick hyphens into words that don’t have them, or readers will suspect you have something else in mind.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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