Sunday, October 5, 2003

Instructions, Continued

My difficulty with "prior to" and "via" isn't that the expressions are without meaning. Contexts exist in which each can be used effectively. My difficulty is that they are often used as simple synonyms for "before" and "by."

"He served as president prior to Jenkins."

"He conducted the survey via e-mail."

Neither of these sentences violates our essential mission of clarity. In a rush, they could go through without serious qualms. Yet they have a jargony, snooty quality that grates.

"He served as president before Jenkins."

"He conducted the survey by e-mail."

At this point, some protest. Such tinkering robs sentences of their life, they say. Why flatten the bumps of living, breathing prose into grey flatness?

Newspapers don't exist to give novelists a start. They don't exist to foster a future generation of prose stylists. They may do these things. But they tell the news. Communication is the job. Not artistic expression.

Anything that proves an obstacle to telling the news is fair game for the "delete" key.