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Is There a Difference Between “Prior” and “Previous”?

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Can “prior” and “previous” be used interchangeably? Let’s take a step back to dissect these two words by analyzing their definitions and reviewing example sentences so that you can understand the differences between them.

White text over green background reads "Prior vs Previous."
“Prior” and “previous” can sometimes have slightly different implications.

Can “Prior” and “Previous” Be Used Interchangeably?

When you’re using prior and previous as adjectives that describe something as “happening or existing before in time or order,” then yes, the two words can be used interchangeably.

We discussed the details during a previous conversation.
We discussed the details during a prior conversation.

However, there are some nuances to be considered. For example, prior also functions as a noun and subtle differences exist in the implied immediacy of these two words. Confused? Don’t worry. Below, we help you understand what prior and previous mean by delving into their definitions and reviewing example sentences.

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Don’t overthink it. Although there are slight nuances, most of the time, these words can be used interchangeably.

What Does “Prior” Mean?

As an Adjective

As we have already stated, prior can be used as an adjective that describes something as “having come before in time, order, or sequence.”

Here are a few examples that use prior with this denotation:

Clarissa and I had a prior engagement, which is why we couldn’t make it to the dinner party.
The artifacts displayed were from a prior era, which the class had yet to study.
He recalled a prior conversation where the details were discussed.

In the sentences above, you could switch out prior with previous without changing the meaning of the sentences. For example: He recalled a previous conversation where the details were discussed.

When used in this sense, synonyms for prior include earlier and former.

Additionally, prior can be used as an adjective that means “existing beforehand and therefore signifying higher importance.”

The couple had a prior claim to the property.

You could switch out prior with previous, and the sentence makes sense, but it removes the implication of precedence or superiority.

When used with this meaning, synonyms for prior include main or foremost.

It’s important to note that when used as an adjective, the word prior is sometimes found at the end of a sentence to mean “before.” Previous can also be used like this, but it’s much less common and could be considered clunky or archaic.

All visitors must schedule an appointment at least a day prior.

All visitors must schedule an appointment at least a day previous.

Prior to is a commonly used prepositional phrase that means “before.” Again, previous to would technically be grammatically correct, but it’s less common and not recommended.

Prior to this meeting, we had coffee.

Previous to this meeting, we had coffee.

Regardless, both prior to and previous to are considered wordy, so it’s best to use before.

Before this meeting, we had coffee.

As a Noun

Although not as common, prior can also function as a noun that refers to “an authority figure who oversees monks or nuns living in a priory.”

As a prior in the monastery, he made a significant impact on the community.

Remember, previous never functions as a noun, meaning it can never be used in place of prior when used in this way.

In informal American English, prior is a shortened way of saying prior conviction.

He was arrested and released on bail because he had no priors.

What Does “Previous” Mean?

Previous is an adjective that means “happening or existing before in time or order.”

Because of my previous experience, I knew to skip the first turn and take the next one.
His previous works were more abstract compared to his recent collection.
Despite months of training, her performance was less impressive than her previous attempts.

As we mentioned earlier, you could replace prior when constructing a sentence like the examples above without changing their meanings.

Despite months of training, her performance was less impressive than her prior attempts.

The related adverb of previous is previously.

The product was not previously available, but we just got a new shipment.

Prior has no adverb form.

There’s one last subtle difference between previous and prior that you should know. When you want to indicate that something happened or existed immediately before something else, the word you should use is previous. For example, in the following sentence, the previous day means the immediate day before.

We had a meeting the previous day, so there was nothing new to discuss.

On the other hand, prior can imply a much broader scope, suggesting that something occurred some time (not immediately) before.

We had a prior commitment.

The use of prior in the sentence above can imply that commitments were made days, weeks, or even months in the past.

“Prior” vs. “Previous” Recap

We started this post by explaining that prior and previous could be used interchangeably, and then continued with several instances in which they shouldn’t. But don’t get discouraged and overthink your use of these words. More often than not, you could replace one with the other, and no one—not even the strictest grammarian you know—would reprimand you.

But if you are one of those strict grammarians and want to understand even the slightest nuances between prior and previous, remember that:

  • Prior and previous both function as adjectives that refer to something “that happened or existed before something else,” but previous sometimes implies immediacy, whereas prior can indicate a broader scope of the past.
  • Using prior can also imply precedence and higher significance; previous does not.
  • Prior is sometimes (but not commonly) used as a noun; previous is not.
  • Previous has a related adverb form (previously), but prior does not.

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