“Before” and “Ago”

By Maeve Maddox

I came across the following sentence in a writer’s movie synopsis:

[a man] passes away and bequeaths his shack on the island to a woman, a young girl that he met many years ago when he was in a prisoner of war hospital.

The word that jars is ago where before is called for.

before – at some unknown time before now.

ago – at a certain time before, counting back from the present
Another way of writing the above sentence would be to make use of a perfect tense:

[a man] passes away and bequeaths his shack on the island to a woman, a young girl that he had met many years before when he was in a prisoner of war hospital.

Even if the lapse of time had been specified, the sentence would still call for before:

 [a man] passes away and bequeaths his shack on the island to a woman, a young girl that he met twenty years before, when he was in a prisoner of war hospital.

Ago is for counting back from the present. The man is dead in the present described in the synopsis. Therefore before, not ago, is called for.

For variation, you can use earlier or previously to indicate a time before a time already in the past.

For a more detailed discussion of the uses of ago and before go here.

 

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15 Responses to ““Before” and “Ago””

  • PreciseEdit

    Good catch on that one. Your well-trained eye never ceases to amaze me. Slightly off topic, but we would have used “whom” instead of “that.”

  • Brad K.

    Could ago also be more first person singular?

    Many long years ago could be a story I am telling. Anyone might refer to the years before now.

  • Lou

    I find myself using “redemptive” more often than “redeeming” when it seems either word will work. I am a word “groupie” but by far NOT an expert. Any help??? Thanks…

  • Lawrence Miller

    I agree with PreciseEdit, you deserve a “well-done” for that one. I, too, noticed the “that” instead of “whom” slip. I wonder though whether that slip was a true grammatical slip or an intended philosophical statement. I have notice that usage creeping into the language of humanists today tend to use terms like “Ms.” instead of “Miss” or “Mrs.”

    Ours is an expressive language and I appreciate the efforts of those who endeavor to speak it well and help others to do so. We all make grammatical mistakes through carelessness and/or lack of knowledge. Thanks for being one of those who help us to speak a better, cleaner, more poetic, vocabulary rich English.

  • Lawrence Miller

    (Proving my own statement, here is an immediate correction for my hurried entry. )

    I agree with PreciseEdit, you deserve a “well-done” for that one. I, too, noticed the “that” instead of “whom” slip. I wonder though whether that slip was a true grammatical slip or an intended philosophical statement. I notice that usage creeping into the language of those who today tend to use terms like “Ms.” instead of “Miss” or “Mrs.”

    Ours is an expressive language and I appreciate the efforts of those who endeavor to speak it well and help others to do so. We all make grammatical mistakes through carelessness and/or lack of knowledge. Thanks for being one of those who help us to speak a better, cleaner, more poetic, vocabulary rich English.

  • Chris O’Brien

    That is a valuable and insightful catch there! I totally agree–after your lucid explanation. I’m an English teacher in Taiwan and I use your articles to help me be a better teacher. Many thanks!

  • cmdweb

    ‘Ago’ seems much more appropriate for something like a first person narration whereas the extract is third person. I agree, ‘before’ is much more appropriate in this case.

  • Kathryn

    What a great point here. I think that most people would read that and notice that it wasn’t quite right but they might not be able to pinpoint what it should read like instead.

  • Nadiah Alwi

    I’ve just found this wonderful site and I’m excited. There is so much to learn. TFS.

  • Vincent

    My take on this is that *Ago* = *Before now*

    So for me the reason “ago” jars is because the point we’re measuring from is in the past (when the man died and made his bequest) not now.

    PS I’ve just found this great site and will come back often.

  • Julian Locke

    Alas, your well-trained eye deceives you, Maeve. While the quoted material in question contains at least three questionable elements, the use of “ago” is not one of them. The word “before” would be quite wrong here, for the simple reason that the main clause is expressed in the present tense. The fact that we are presented with a description of past events is, from a grammatical point of view, wholly irrelevant (as is the fact that the man is, we are told, now dead).

    In effect, the reader is transported, as it were (not physically, but mentally), into the scene in which the man bequeaths his shack to the girl. The word “ago” in this context therefore refers – grammatically speaking – to an event that took place ten years before now. By contrast, “before” should be used to refer to events that took place, or circumstances that prevailed, before a specified (or sometimes just implied) moment or period in the past (i.e., before then). In other words, it is the tense that counts, irrespective of whether it corresponds to the time being described. (I know that, etymologically speaking, the words “tense” and “time” are strongly related, but I’m sure you’ll agree that they have distinct meanings.)

    Perhaps an example will make my point clearer:

    He goes to the old bar, where he met Julie ten years ago.
    He went to the old bar, where he had met Julie ten years before (or ten years earlier).

    These two sentences might, according to some writer’s whim, be used to recount exactly the same story; but note how the choice of tense determines the choice of either “ago” or “before”. To see that this is correct, simply substitute the first person for the third:

    I go to the old bar, where I met Julie ten years ago.
    I went to the old bar, where I had met Julie ten years before (or ten years earlier).

    Here, I hope you’ll agree, there is no doubt regarding which word goes where. I think the underlying problem, in the quoted passage, is the use of the present tense to describe the past. This is a technique that is fraught with hidden dangers, and it is not surprising that it so often leads to conceptual confusion. Many speakers, and some writers, may even fall into the trap of skipping back and forth between past and present tenses when attempting to describe only past events:

    And so, I come into the room, and I see her sitting by the window; and do you know what she said to me?

    This leads me (by mysterious and roundabout means) to another observation. For some curious reason, a mixture of reported and quoted speech poses all sorts of problems for poorly schooled writers (particularly journalists). Here is a typical example, made up, but not, I suggest, unrealistic:

    He said that he would go “if I can find a co-pilot”.

    Here there is a jarring conflict between “he” and “I”, and also between “would” and “can”, resulting in an ungrammatical, if not downright meaningless, sentence. The choice of an appropriate means of avoiding such a conflict is a matter of taste, and I would not presume to foist my preferred option upon you. Instead, I offer a short list of valid options that spring to mind. (Note that I am English, and that my use of punctuation may differ from yours, particularly with regard to the placement of quotation marks. Nevertheless, feel free to point out any errors that you happen to notice in my comments. I’m always keen to learn.)

    He said: “I’ll go if I can find a co-pilot.”
    “I’ll go if I can find a co-pilot,” he said.
    He said (that) he would go if he could “find a co-pilot”.
    He said (that) he would go if he could find a co-pilot. (No quoted speech.)

    Another, somewhat ungainly, option is:

    He said (that) he would go “if [he could] find a co-pilot”.

    This last option, making use of square brackets in order to paraphrase a part of the quoted text, would, I think, have been more acceptable if the quotation had been rather longer.

    ===========

    Turning, now, to the “questionable” elements I have already mentioned, we may agree that the most obvious one (relating to the use of “that” rather than “whom”) has already been discussed sufficiently; yet at least two others have somehow escaped attention.

    The first of these is that the quoted sentence should certainly begin with a capital letter, even if it is only a partial quotation of a longer sentence. One of the purposes of using those square brackets is to render a quoted sentence-fragment grammatically consistent with the surrounding text. Thus, if we wish to quote only a part of a sentence, or to change the tense or mood of a quoted passage, the square brackets allow us to fit the quoted material correctly into the overall structure. Moreover, if the quoted material is introduced with the expression “the following sentence” (as it is in Maeve’s example), then it should indeed be a complete sentence, and hence begin with a capital letter. (I’m sure this was just a small oversight on your part, Maeve.)

    Another questionable element, in my opinion, is the omitted comma after “ago”. You may well argue that the comma is unnecessary or optional, and I probably couldn’t refute such an assertion. Yet the final clause, beginning with “when”, is, as far as I can tell, a relative clause, which adds useful but dispensable information regarding the man’s first encounter with the girl. Perhaps, in the end, it’s just a matter of taste. I would add a comma. And you?

    ===========

    Here are a few other observations in response to preceding comments.

    1) “vocabulary rich” should be “vocabulary-rich”. The hyphen is needed to form a compound adjective, and to avoid a possible ambiguity, however fleeting it may be. Over the past century or so, hyphens have gradually fallen out of favour, but careful writers continue to use them wherever they serve a useful purpose – which they often do. Note that there is no rule that says you can’t string more than two words together with hyphens. The well-placed hyphen is a not-to-be-sniffed-at tool of the trade, whether you’re crafting a future classic or merely knocking up a washing-powder advertisement. By convention, however, adverbs ending in “-ly” should not be followed by hyphens. This is probably because no potential ambiguity exists in unhyphenated constructions incorporating such adverbs. E.g., “a nearly-finished novel” says no more nor less than “a nearly finished novel”. The hyphen is therefore superfluous. The same could not be said for “a near-fatal accident” and “a near fatal accident”. Geddit?

    2) “I wonder though whether” should be “I wonder, though, whether”. The commas are not optional. Similar structures are “I wonder, however, whether” and “I wonder, therefore, whether”. But note: “I therefore wonder whether”. Here the word-order obviates the need for parenthetical commas. Indeed, the commas would change the emphasis entirely. Note how the construction “I, therefore, wonder whether” brings the subject, “I”, right into the foreground. (Try saying it out loud, with the appropriate pauses corresponding to the commas, and you should see what I mean.)

    3) “the reason … is because” should be “the reason … is that”. The explanation is that the concept “because” is already implied (albeit tacitly) in the expression “the reason”.

    4) I think you’ve probably guessed that I could continue with a very long list here. Fear not! I’ll leave it at that.

    PS I love the site.

  • Duncan

    I quote from correspondent Julian Locke

    ‘He said (that) he would go if he could find a co-pilot. (No quoted speech.)’

    My question, which is driving me mad, is should the ‘that’ be in or out? To my mind, it tends to add nothing in this context and slows down the flow. Is there a rule I could follow?

  • Lauren @ Pure Text

    @Duncan, there’s no steadfast rule against dropping “that”s. You just can if you choose to, and it seems (that) you do. 😉

  • May

    Thanks for sharing this topic.

    Would you be so kind to also discuss the proper use of “later” and “from now”?

    I am working in a company where many people speak English as a second language. I often hear people say, “I will give the report to you two hours later” when I believe they should say, “two hours from now”.

    Thanks.

  • Maeve

    Reading this post 3 1/2 years after the fact, I’m wondering why I wrote it.
    Even before noticing the long comment from Julian Locke (which I’ve yet to finish reading), I decided that this was one of my less-informed efforts.

    Apologies to all.

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