Which Word Wednesday: Foreword, Preface, and Introduction

By September 22, 2010 culture, language No Comments

You can tell a lot about people by the way they approach a new book.

Do they read the back cover or the inside flap? Do they skim the table of contents? Do they read the last pages first, to know where the story is heading? Do they judge a book by its cover?

Well, I am the sort that reads the back cover, inside flap, and table of contents. I do not read the last pages first, not even for novels. I love the endnotes and bibliography. And yes, I do judge a book by its cover (although I am not so rigid that I refuse to overlook it here and there).

I also read all the other pages before chapter 1—the foreword, preface, and introduction. What’s the difference between these three? I wondered that myself, and decided it would be a great topic for this week’s Which Word discussion. The Oxford American Dictionary gives the following definitions:

foreword :: noun
a short introduction to a book, typically by a person other than the author

preface :: noun
an introduction to a book, typically stating its subject, scope, or aims

introduction :: noun
an explanatory section at the beginning of a book

hmmm . . . very similar, aren’t they? Let’s also check with Dave Dowling in his book The Wrong Word Dictionary:

The foreword (not forward) of a book is a short note at the beginning of a book that usually tells how the book originated. Alternately, a foreword is a short introductory note written by someone other than the author. The preface is a statement written by the author about the book’s objective or purpose. An introduction, which can be written by the author or another person, follows the foreword and preface and tells the reader what to expect in the book.1

Clear as mud? Yes. Here’s how my brain distinguishes between these three sections:

The foreword is an endorsement (the hat tip from some respected person).
The preface is the book’s mission statement (the author’s objective for writing).
The introduction is the vision statement (what readers can expect).

[polldaddy poll=3804403]

I don’t see much of a debate among these definitions, so I don’t have a typical WWW verdict to offer. But I do have two questions for you this week, which should make up for it.

The first question forms our WWW survey and asks you to choose the phrase that best describes your reading habits, based on the post introduction.

The second question you can answer in the comment section: I’m curious, if you could have anyone write the foreword to your book, who would it be? Do tell!

Oh—who would write the foreword to my book? That’s a tough one. I’d say either Luci Shaw or Kathleen Norris. Or my friend Queenie. (Sorry, I can’t name just one—there are just too many great people out there!)

1. Dave Dowling, The Wrong Word Dictionary (Oak Park, IL: Marion Street Press, 2005), 111–112.

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