Are all pre-bookings just bookings?

Some commentators hate hearing people say that they ‘pre-booked’ something, for example, a taxi or a ticket. These commentators argue that the prefix pre- is redundant. In their view, the word book already necessarily includes the meaning that the action occurred in advance.

Is the prefix pre- always redundant?

I agree that the prefix is sometimes redundant, but in some cases, it does convey some extra meaning. I heard an example (with a different verb) on the radio a few days. It was in a programme about a former employee of the shipping company P&O. The company made him made redundant, along with 800 colleagues, in March this year. The company offered an enhanced redundancy package to the employees. To receive the package, employees undertook had to refrain from suing the company and from commenting publicly. Most of the former employees accepted those terms, but this man declined the enhanced package. He is now fighting the company in the courts and campaigning publicly.

This man said that he had recently taken a holiday in South Africa and that the holiday was ‘pre-planned’. In context, the prefix clearly conveyed the additional (and important) meaning that he had planned the holiday before some other specified event. In this case, the specified event was the announcement of the redundancy.

Pre-booking or just booking?

This example I heard involved a different verb (plan). But I believe similar principles apply when using pre-book rather than just book. pre-book conveys the meaning not just that a booking occurred but that the booking was either:

  • unusually early; or
  • before some event that either has been mentioned explicitly or is salient in the context.   

Pre-booking a taxi

The particular case of pre-booking a taxi is interesting. Following the principle I have suggested above, you might say you have pre-booked a taxi if you booked it unusually early. Perhaps you might have booked early to be sure of catching a flight, or sure of not missing some other important deadline. But it is also common to see notices saying that taxis can only be pre-booked, where legal requirements distinguish:

  • taxis that can be hailed on the street without advance notice; from
  • taxis that must be booked in advance.

In that context, maybe the prefix pre- stops tax drivers and customers claiming that hailing a taxi in the street in a booking.

With a hyphen?

Some words (such as prepare) are so familiar, that people generally spell the word without a hyphen. For many other words, usage varies. If in doubt, I generally favour including the hyphen. That is especially the case if am writing for readers who didn’t learn English as their first language.

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