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Previous vs. Prior — What's the Difference?

By Tayyaba Rehman — Updated on October 31, 2023
Previous refers to something immediately before in time or order; Prior means earlier or preceding, often implying importance or preference.
Previous vs. Prior — What's the Difference?

Difference Between Previous and Prior


Key Differences

Previous is typically used to refer directly to the most recent thing before the current one. For instance, in "previous job," it refers to the job held just before the current one. Prior, while also referring to something that came before, often implies a greater lapse of time or a sense of precedence in importance or urgency, as in "prior commitments."
In everyday conversation, previous is commonly used for immediate predecessors. For example, talking about a "previous episode" of a TV show. Prior, on the other hand, is often found in more formal or business contexts, such as "prior approval" required for an action.
Previous can also relate to a former state or condition of the same subject, like "previous health" indicating a person’s health status before the current one. Prior carries a sense of something that must be dealt with or considered first, often carrying weight due to its earlier occurrence, such as in legal contexts with "prior cases."
Previous is rarely used in contexts where priority or preference is implied. It is neutral in terms of importance. However, prior is often used when implying a hierarchy or sequence of importance, like in "prior knowledge" suggesting knowledge that is foundational or essential.
In terms of usage, previous is more straightforward and directly points to what immediately came before. Prior, while also denoting something that came earlier, often carries additional connotations of precedence in importance or time, and sometimes requires additional context for clarity.

Comparison Chart

Temporal Reference

Immediately preceding
Preceding with an implication of importance

Common Usage

Casual and everyday contexts
Formal, legal, or business contexts


Neutral, without emphasis on importance
Often implies importance or urgency

Example Context

"The previous owner of the house."
"Prior arrangements prevent my attendance."

Synonym Comparison

Similar to "last" or "former"
Comparable to "earlier" or "preceding"

Compare with Definitions


He referred to his previous statement.


The project had prior approval.


Immediately Before
She returned to her previous employer.


His prior work influenced the research.


The previous record was quickly broken.


He had arranged everything prior to the meeting.


The previous owner had renovated the house.


Prior (or prioress) is an ecclesiastical title for a superior, usually lower in rank than an abbot or abbess. Its earlier generic usage referred to any monastic superior.


Just Past
In the previous month, sales increased.


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


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


Preceding in importance or value
A prior consideration.


(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).


Usage Problem Before.


(not comparable) Prior; occurring before something else, either in time or order.
He is no better than the previous Prime Minister.


A previous conviction or arrest
The suspect has two priors.


(informal) Premature; acting or occurring too soon.


A monastic officer in charge of a priory or ranking next below the abbot of an abbey.


An existing criminal record (short for "previous convictions")
It turned out the shoplifter had a lot of previous.


One of the ruling magistrates of the medieval Italian republic of Florence.


A track record of similar behaviour.


Advance; previous; coming before.
I had no prior knowledge you were coming.


Going before in time; being or happening before something else; antecedent; prior; as, previous arrangements; a previous illness.
The dull sound . . . previous to the storm,Rolls o'er the muttering earth.


Former, previous.
His prior residence was smaller than his current one.


(used especially of persons) of the immediate past;
The former president
Our late President is still very active
The previous occupant of the White House


(colloquial) Previously.
The doctor had known three months prior.


Too soon or too hasty;
Our condemnation of him was a bit previous
A premature judgment


A previous arrest or criminal conviction on someone's record.


Just preceding something else in time or order;
The previous owner
My old house was larger


A prior probability distribution, one based on information or belief before additional data is collected.


A belief supported by previous evidence or experience that one can use to make inferences about the future.


A high-ranking member of a monastery, usually lower in rank than an abbot.


(historical) A chief magistrate in Italy.


Preceding in the order of time; former; antecedent; anterior; previous; as, a prior discovery; prior obligation; - used elliptically in cases like the following: he lived alone [in the time] prior to his marriage.


First, precedent, or superior in the order of cognition, reason or generality, origin, development, rank, etc.


The superior of a priory, and next below an abbot in dignity.


A chief magistrate, as in the republic of Florence in the middle ages.


A prior conviction; - said of an accused criminal.


The head of a religious order; in an abbey the prior is next below the abbot


Earlier in time


Preceding with Importance
She had prior commitments.

Common Curiosities

Can previous and prior be used interchangeably?

Sometimes, but their nuances can lead to different implications.

Can previous be used for people?

Yes, like in "previous owner."

Can previous refer to something long ago?

No, previous usually refers to the immediate predecessor.

Is prior always about time?

Mostly, but it can also imply importance or preference.

Does prior imply a sequence?

Yes, often a sequence of importance or urgency.

Is prior more formal than previous?

Yes, prior is often used in more formal contexts.

Is previous suitable for legal documents?

It can be used, but prior is more common in legal language.

Can previous be an adverb?

No, it's used as an adjective.

Does prior always mean before in time?

Usually, but it can also mean before in order or importance.

Does previous imply a direct connection?

Generally, it refers to the immediate thing before another.

Can prior mean necessary?

In some contexts, it implies something necessary before another action.

Can previous describe an action?

It's more often used for events or states, not actions.

Can prior refer to future events?

Rarely, it’s mostly used for past or present contexts.

Is prior a synonym for important?

Not directly, but it often implies importance due to being earlier.

Is previous more common in everyday language?

Yes, it's more commonly used in casual speech.

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Author Spotlight

Written by
Tayyaba Rehman
Tayyaba Rehman is a distinguished writer, currently serving as a primary contributor to As a researcher in semantics and etymology, Tayyaba's passion for the complexity of languages and their distinctions has found a perfect home on the platform. Tayyaba delves into the intricacies of language, distinguishing between commonly confused words and phrases, thereby providing clarity for readers worldwide.

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