What is a Preamble? - Definition, Purpose & Examples

What is a Preamble? - Definition, Purpose & Examples
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  • 3:08 Example: Introduction…
  • 4:40 Example: The UN Charter
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

The word 'preamble' conjures up phrases like 'We the people...' but you've experienced other preambles. In fact, you're experiencing one right now! In this lesson, rediscover the preamble, along with examples of its various forms and functions.

Before We Begin: 'Preamble' Defined

Let's start with a bit of preamble to this term's definition. Before its Latin root was devised, ancient authors often used the Greek prologos (prologue) to describe introductory material, especially in writing comedies. However, these early precursors to the preamble were mostly concerned with notes on the play's production and were frequently improvised to some degree--usually to bash critics or to include prominent audience members in the fun.

The Latin adjective praeambulum, literally meaning 'that which walks ahead,' first came into use in the 5th century A.D. It first appeared in the preliminary section of Martianus Minneus Capella's book On the Marriage of Philology and Mercury (De nuptiis). That preamble was a dedication to the Titan Mnemosyne, goddess of memory and mother of the Muses, imaging her as someone cutting a path ahead of all others. From that point forward, the term preamble has been used to describe material that introduces or outlines the work that follows.

Types of Preambles and Their Purpose

From its humble beginnings over 1,500 years ago, 'preamble' has been applied to innumerable prefaces and preludes, including some of history's most notable and illustrious documents. Below is a list of the varieties of preambles that we can find in use today.

• Literary: Also commonly known as prefaces or prologues, these preambles are probably the most frequently encountered. This was the first application of the term in English when Chaucer used it to describe 'The Wife of Bath's Prologue' in 1386, and many books still feature these pieces as a way to introduce the book's subject or narrative.

• Legal: Although perhaps not the most frequent use of the word, the legal preamble is almost certainly one of the most familiar. A preamble is used in this context to provide the grounds for and intentions of the law, charter, or other formal document that follows, such as in the case of the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution.

• Circumstantial: The use of 'preamble' in this way can be tricky, especially considering that many literary preambles might also, to some degree, be circumstantial. The key difference is that this variety often points toward a particular cause or opportunity for subsequent action, or at the very least, describes the immediate (as opposed to more detailed) circumstances surrounding it. For instance, take this sentence: 'The girl's interest in her boyfriend's medical history was nothing more than a preamble to murder.'

• Musical: More commonly referred to as a prelude, a musical preamble is a composition that introduces a larger piece of music, often as a way to preview its melodies and tonal themes. The various praeambula of Johann Sebastian Bach are good models for musical preambles, although the use of the preamble to describe a musical movement was actually coined by poet John Milton in Paradise Lost.

Example: Introduction to Firefly

Being thrown into any unfamiliar environment can leave audiences craving a little extra information. In the case of the television series Firefly, viewers have been transported nearly 500 years into the future, so some preliminary explanation of the world is definitely in order. Various characters from the series narrate the literary preamble to each episode; however, the key information is always the same. This version of the Firefly preamble is narrated by the protagonist, Malcolm Reynolds. It demonstrates his colloquial manner of speech and penchant for short, pithy sentences, while still conveying the necessary information.

Here's how it is: The Earth got used up, so we moved out and terraformed a whole new galaxy of Earths--some rich and flush with the new technologies, some not so much. The Central Planets, them was formed the Alliance, waged war to bring everyone under their rule. A few idiots tried to fight it: among 'em myself. I'm Malcolm Reynolds, captain of 'Serenity.' She's a transport ship, Firefly class. Got a good crew: fighters, pilot, mechanic. We even picked up a preacher for some reason, and a bona fide companion. There's a doctor, too--took his genius sister out of some Alliance camp, so they're keeping a low profile, you understand. You got a job, we can do it…don't much care what it is.

After this intro, several teaser scenes are displayed that serve as more detailed circumstantial preambles for the episode before the title screen is displayed.

Example: The UN Charter

You are undoubtedly familiar to some extent with the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution, and this is probably where you first encountered the term. Legal preambles can supply opening information on individual laws and statutes, but they are more prevalent at the beginning of more foundational documents, such as constitutions and charters. Characteristic of a legal preamble, this one to the Charter of the United Nations is composed of elongated sentences that enumerate and outline the separate causes and goals represented by the charter as a whole. The entire preamble actually contains only two sentences--and only the first sentence is displayed here:

We the peoples of the United Nations determined

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