If you’re thinking of donating blood before July 27th, this headline is for you! Here are some more extracts from news items in the Guardian and The Telegraph this month, in the run-up to the London Olympics:
- FEARS ABOUT UK BORDER QUEUES AHEAD OF OLYMPICS (headline)
- Author says police crackdown ahead of the Olympics is putting lives of prostitutes at risk (sub-headline)
- The French have portrayed the British as pot–bellied darts and snooker players in an advertising campaign ahead of the Olympic Games.
Have you noticed an increase in this use of ahead of in news headlines and reports? It is covered under sense 3 a) of the adverb ahead in Macmillan Dictionary – the definition is “before a time or event”.
Ahead of here is used to sequence connected events. Typically something is done, or happens, not only ahead of (‘before’ or ‘prior to’) a planned event, but because of it. Often someone is reported as talking about the event, travelling to attend it, or making preparations for it. Thus the preposition ahead of is at the core of a ‘semantic sequence’ (Hunston 2008* etc) that could be summarized like this:
SITUATION/PREPARATORY ACTION + ahead of + SCHEDULED EVENT
In the examples above, the scheduled event is of course the London Olympics. In other news items, the events that follow ahead of include a major summit, a visit to Washington, his joint press conference, its gala premiere, Thursday’s US rate decision, today’s Independence Day holiday, the general election, and the protest (source: ukWaC via Skylight).
This use is particularly characteristic of sports reporting, as in this Euro 2012 headline and follow-up:
- GREECE GUNG-HO AHEAD OF RUSSIA CRUNCH
Group A stragglers Greece on Friday brushed off their underdog image ahead of their do-or-die match with leaders Russia … (Yahoo! Sports)
The main exponents of the event provide a veritable thesaurus entry of sporting fixtures and their stages – match, game, championship, quarter-final, kick-off and so on. They also include the metaphors equating sport with warfare, as in these Euro 2012 headlines:
- GERMANY RELAXED AHEAD OF PORTUGAL BATTLE
- JOACHIM LOW DEFENDS TEAM SELECTION AHEAD OF NETHERLANDS CLASH
- ROBBIE KEANE SOUNDS BATTLE-CRY AHEAD OF SHOWDOWN WITH CHAMPIONS SPAIN
This sense is treated as fairly minor in Macmillan Dictionary, and is completely ignored in many dictionaries. In an attempt to discover the trend, I compared its frequency across two general corpora that were compiled about a decade apart – the BNC in the mid-1990s and ukWaC in the mid-2000s. The comparison involved some serious counting, but it became clear that the sense was at least 60% more frequent in ukWaC than in the BNC (despite a slight drop in the overall number of occurrences of ahead of per million words).
In this connection it is worth considering the online ‘rant’ phenomenon – bloggers’ tirades against words and phrases seen as new, unwelcome, and annoying. A typical rant condemns this sense of ahead of as ‘imported’ (from America, naturally), and asks “Why use ahead of when you really mean before?”, which prompts me to enquire what ‘really mean’ really means, in this context. These views come out of left field, and are largely irreconcilable with the thinking behind corpus approaches to language change. But it is nice to be across the topics that the self-styled ‘guardians’ of our language are fulminating about, and they do provide evidence of a kind.
This use of ahead of is also frowned upon by some mainstream style-guide writers. In 2007 the Guardian style guide said curtly, “avoid”. The current guide is slightly more relaxed, but still insists that ahead of is “overused, and often jars”, advising the use of before or in advance of instead. It is interesting that writers on the Guardian and its sister paper, the Observer, seem unaffected by this advice, and use ahead of freely.
The point is surely that far from being careless or ‘wrong’, ahead of simply prioritizes one of the many prepositional meanings of before in a quite precise, unambiguous way. Not only does it sequence events, but it also indicates a causal or logical connection between them. Before is a top-frequency, polysemous word, a conjunction as well as a preposition. Ahead of has stepped in and annexed one tiny piece of the territory, acquiring its own collocates and phraseology. This is hardly cause for concern.
Meanwhile, speaking of a possible strike by tanker drivers back in March, an oil consultant remarked that it would be bad for the country’s image “if petrol stations in the UK run out of fuel in front of the Olympics”. It seems there is no stopping these prepositions in their expansionist ambitions!
Hunston, S. 2008. Starting with the small words: Patterns, lexis and semantic sequences. International Journal of Corpus Linguistics 13(3): 271-295.