Introduction, Foreword, Preface, Prologue?
A student in Poland wants to know: What’s the difference between an introduction, a foreword, a preface, and a prologue? When he wrote me and claimed to have the same problem with these words in Polish, I had to admit that they’ve been a confusion for me in the past.
This gave me a great reason to check with my two favorite references. The first is the Merriam Webster Dictionary (MWD), which is convenient to check online. The other is my hard-bound American Heritage Dictionary (AHD), which always gives me great etymologies. After some research, here’s what I discovered.
introduction: something that introduces, including a part of a book or treatise preliminary to the main portion
Examples: Interestingly, the examples given in the MWD did not include book references, but instead, the sense of newly inserted information or awareness.
The origin is from Latin: to lead or bring in.
Synonyms: foreword, preamble, preface, prelude, prologue
foreword: prefatory comments (as for a book), especially when written by someone other than the author
Example: The editor makes some good points in the foreword about the author’s life, so be sure to read it.
The origin of this word is easy to see: words which come before (the main text).
Synonyms: introduction, preamble, preface, prelude, prologue
Antonyms: epilogue, afterword
NOTE: this word is often confused with “forward” (which is pronounced the same), meaning progress (the opposite of backward). The antonym “afterword” likewise has a dangerous sound-alike in “afterward” (which means following or coming later).
preface: the introductory remarks of a speaker or author
Examples: The book’s preface was written by the author. A noted critic has written a short preface to her story to explain some of the historical background.
The origin is from Latin: to say beforehand.
Synonyms: foreword, intro, preamble, introduction, prelude, prologue
prologue: the preface or introduction to a literary work, a speech often in verse addressed to the audience by an actor at the beginning of a play
Examples: the prologue to his autobiography, Unfortunately, the burglary, which he committed while still a teen, was but a prologue to a wasted life of crime.
The origin is from Greek: before + speaking.
Synonyms: preamble, prelude, warm-up
This research, of course, makes us want to look up the antonyms. Here’s what the MWD had to say about epilogue:
epilogue: a concluding section that rounds out the design of a literary work or the final scene of a play that comments on or summarizes the main action
The origin is from Greek: to say more.
BOTTOM LINE: Since these four words share a common theme, here’s what I recommend as ways to distinguish them when you are speaking or writing. When other speakers are using these words, you need to understand that they may use them interchangeably.
1. Use prologue when referring to a spoken introduction or a theatrical event.
2. In a book, use introduction for a first chapter written by the author. Otherwise, use introduction for non-book events: new products, services, acquaintances, etc.
3. Use preface when talking about an author’s own words before the first chapter of the book.
4. Use foreword when referring to remarks by another expert on the book you are about to begin reading.
Good luck, and please advise me if you discover new meanings for these words!