'Before' perhaps something else that's complicated/ Would you please help me out once more

To make things very clear to you, I’ll type a small dialogue that I heard in 'Downton Abbey between the dowager countess and her eldest granddaughter.

A: How long were you planning to wait, before you told us why you really went to London last week?
B: Since you ask, I haven’t decided. So, if I tell you now, will you promise to keep it yourself.

Another line comes from Mrs. Slocombe in ‘Are You Being Served’

M.S.: He’d have to pull the handle a lot of times before he got my cherries up. Mrs. Slocombe and her assistant Ms. Brahms were talking about slot machines.

Before seems to be used commonly in English in this way. But I would like to know why before is followed by a past tense.

@Alan, @Anglophile, @Arinker, @NearlyNapping

Thank you in advance.


Some questions on here are so difficult to asnwer. I’ve written an answer to this four times now and deleted them all because they don’t really answer the underlying question. The easiest answer is to say it’s a collocation.

The first example might be changed to:
Why have you not told us yet?

Compare that to:
Are you going to tell us?

Why have you not told us yet?
This shows a disappointment that they have not been told yet. It implies that they should have been told already, but have not.

Are you going to tell us?
This is simply a question without the implication that they should have already been told.

He’d have to pull the handle a lot of times before he got my cherries up.

This strongly implies that it’s not going to happen. It implies that if it did happen, it would not be easy.

If it’s changed to before he gets my cherries up, it somewhat implies that it might actually happen.

I still don’t think this is really answering the question. So I fall back on “it’s a collocation”.


Thanks NN,

Please, try not to be insecure, because you’re right. Why do I say you’re right? Well, because you’ve just clarified something I was a bit struggling with. And although I’ve been studying English since I was seven, it doesn’t make me a native speaker. You are absolutely right and correct, because deriving from the context, I sort of knew what it meant, but I wanted to make sure if my interpretation was correct. You have proven - although you feel you’ve not really given me an answer - that you have given me an answer that makes a lot of sense to me. I really appreciate it. That’s how I feel.

Marc :grinning:


If you observe carefully, you will find that ‘before’ can be used with any tense construction as exemplified below:

  1. Look before you leap.
  2. You should return home before it is dark.
  3. The passenger would show their pass before boarding the plane.
  4. Paratroopers will unfold their parachutes before they land.
  5. The train left (had left) the platform before they could reach (reached) there.

I think in both cases ‘told’ is used as a past subjunctive. As you know the subjunctive in many cases in English masquerades itself as the indicative - here as the past subjunctive. The inference is ‘would tell’.


Thank you very much, Alan.

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