Rulebooks vs. Style Guides.
It has become fashionable lately in linguistic circles to say that people confuse style manuals with rulebooks (grammars). But the supposed distinction is highly questionable. Good usage guides are essentially both: they’re style manuals dealing with both grammatical issues and stylistic preferences that improve phrasing and word choice. Many questions of good usage aren’t questions of bright-line right/wrong rulings. Is it better to say before instead of prior to? (Yes, but the latter isn’t grammatically “wrong,” but neither is the hideous previous to the time when.) Is it better to begin a sentence with And as opposed to In addition to the foregoing? (Yes, but only as a matter of style. All the reputable usage manuals are at pains to spread the word that beginning sentences with conjunctions is quite healthy, as long as they don’t exceed 20% or so of the sentences.) Is it better to say incentivize than incent? (Yes, but traditionalists consider both words objectionable; in recent years, though, incentivize has appeared seven times more often than incent in published books.) Is it better to say have often done or often have done? (The former is idiomatically preferable—it’s always been so—and is vastly predominant in print.)
Now to practicalities: a strong stylistic preference in straight-faced nonfiction prose, if based on sound empirical assessments, is almost indistinguishable from a “rule.” Prefer before over prior to, and certainly previous to the time when. And use incentivize if provide incentives is too cumbersome—avoiding incent. Even if you have often done otherwise, you’ll be better off. And for goodness’ sake, master English usage. Get some reputable usage guides and browse purposefully five minutes a day. Learn when and how to use lest; how to use subjunctives; why indicate isn’t a good substitute for say; why just deserts is so spelled; why Standard English demands if he had done it, not if he would have done it—and thousands of other points. Would it weren’t necessary to do so, but it is.
If you’d like to test your command of Standard Written English and its nuances, download the app for Garner’s Modern English Usage and take the 30 usage quizzes. The answers are keyed to the text, which is based on big-data empiricism. Your answers will be retained on the app for only 24 hours, and then you can retest yourself. If you want a sure knowledge of the 300 most common problems in word usage, there’s no better way to obtain it.