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Previous vs. Prior: What's the Difference?

Edited by Aimie Carlson || By Harlon Moss || Updated on November 6, 2023
Previous refers to something existing or happening before the current point in time, while prior often implies something that is not only earlier but also conveys a sense of importance or necessity before other things.

Key Differences

Both previous and prior indicate something that came before another thing in time. Previous is commonly used to describe what has recently or last occurred, often more colloquial. Prior can carry a sense of requirement or conditionality, implying precedence in importance as well as in time.
In everyday language, "previous" is generally more informal and used to refer to the immediate predecessor of the current subject. "Prior," while interchangeable in some contexts, often bears a formal tone and is used to suggest a chronological order with an emphasis on precedence or necessity.
The distinction can be subtle; previous is used when referring to something directly preceding, without the connotation of urgency or precedence. Prior, however, is sometimes preferred when the context is formal, or when indicating something that is prerequisite or needs to be considered first.
"Previous" can indicate the most recent in a sequence or simply something that existed before now, whereas "prior" suggests a relationship of something coming before another element and often is used in more formal or structured contexts.
While both words can be used in legal, formal, or scheduled contexts, "prior" is more likely to appear in legal documents or in contexts where priorities are being established, whereas "previous" is more likely in everyday conversation or less formal writing.

Comparison Chart


Less formal, more common in conversation
More formal, often used in legal contexts


Refers to the most recent or last instance
Implies precedence or conditionality

Temporal Proximity

Directly before
Anytime before, not necessarily directly


Simply earlier in time
Often indicates priority or importance

Common Collocations

Previous day, previous version
Prior commitment, prior experience

Previous and Prior Definitions


Occurring before something else in time.
The previous owner of the house planted these trees.


Earlier or former.
She was unaware of his prior life in another country.


Existing or occurring earlier.
I saw him once the previous week.


Required as a precondition.
Proof of purchase is required prior to making a return.


Former or earlier.
Her previous job involved a lot of travel.


Preceding in time or order.
He had a meeting prior to the event.


Immediately preceding in position.
She referred to the points made in the previous chapter.


Taking precedence in importance.
Prior arrangements necessitated her early departure.


Just passed.
During the previous month, sales had doubled.


Previous, used formally.
She could not attend due to a prior engagement.


Existing or occurring before something else in time or order; prior
Children by a previous marriage.


Preceding in time or order
“[They] insist that foreign vessels seeking access obtain prior approval” (Seymour M. Hersh).


(Informal) Acting, occurring, or done too soon; premature or hasty
"I have been too previous, for which you must blame the natural impatience of a man in love" (Georgette Heyer).


Preceding in importance or value
A prior consideration.


Can "previous" and "prior" be used interchangeably?

Often they can, but "prior" can carry a formal tone and imply priority in terms of importance, not just sequence.

How do you use "previous" in a sentence?

"She couldn't remember the name of her previous employer."

Is "prior" more formal than "previous"?

Yes, "prior" is typically more formal and used in legal, official, or procedural contexts.

Can "previous" indicate immediate succession?

Yes, "previous" often indicates the most recent thing before the current one.

How do you use "prior" in a sentence?

"You must obtain prior approval before taking leave."

Does "prior" always refer to time?

Mostly, but it can also imply order of importance, not just time.

Can "previous" be used for things other than time?

It's mainly used for time but can sometimes refer to order, like in a list.

What does "previous" mean?

"Previous" refers to something that came before something else in time or order.

Does "previous" have a plural form?

Yes, it can be used as "previous occasions" or "previous times."

What does "prior" mean?

"Prior" also means something that came before something else, often with an emphasis on precedence in terms of importance or necessity.

What is the noun form of "prior"?

The noun form is "priority," which is commonly used to denote something with greater importance.

Can "prior" be used in legal terms?

Yes, "prior" is often used in legal contexts to refer to earlier statutes, decisions, or conditions.

Can "previous" refer to a condition instead of time?

Yes, it can refer to conditions or states that existed before the current one.

Can "prior" be used without referring to a specific point in time?

Yes, "prior" can imply precedence without a direct reference to a specific timeline, as in "prior obligations."

What is the noun form of "previous"?

The noun form is "previousness," although it's rarely used.

Can "previous" refer to multiple past events?

Yes, it can refer to any number of events that occurred before the current point.

How does "previous work experience" differ from "prior work experience"?

"Previous work experience" often refers to the jobs held before the current one, while "prior work experience" can imply that this experience is specifically relevant or required for a current situation or job application.

Is there a situation where "prior" cannot replace "previous"?

Yes, in casual or personal contexts, like "my previous home," "prior" would sound overly formal and out of place.

Can "prior" be used in everyday conversation?

It can, but it tends to sound more formal or official than "previous."

Is "prior" related to priority?

Yes, "prior" comes from the same root as "priority," indicating something that comes first in importance.
About Author
Written by
Harlon Moss
Harlon is a seasoned quality moderator and accomplished content writer for Difference Wiki. An alumnus of the prestigious University of California, he earned his degree in Computer Science. Leveraging his academic background, Harlon brings a meticulous and informed perspective to his work, ensuring content accuracy and excellence.
Edited by
Aimie Carlson
Aimie Carlson, holding a master's degree in English literature, is a fervent English language enthusiast. She lends her writing talents to Difference Wiki, a prominent website that specializes in comparisons, offering readers insightful analyses that both captivate and inform.

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