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I need to know the word type of "before" in constructions like the following:

Before going home, I had a beer.

I do know the word types before can be in general, so no need for lengthy responses ;).

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up vote 2 down vote accepted

This really depends on the principles of your particular analysis. Two broad approaches:

  • analyse it as being a preposition, just as in other cases (so in "before dinner", "before he had dinner", "before dining", "he'd never done it before", 'before' would be a preposition in all of these cases)
  • analyse it as being of some other special category, e.g. "conjunction", to designate what is effectively a preposition used in this way (with a verbal/gerundive complement).

Which is more appropriate depends to some extent on the purpose of your analysis.

The first approach has the benefit of consistency. In this approach, we say that prepositions can take complements, just like other elements such as verbs. And we say that prepositions can be intransitive or transitive, just like verbs and quantifiers. That complement can then in fact be a 'verb phrase inside a noun phrase' (gerund in English, but potentially something else e.g. a verb phrase with a subjunctive, in other languages), just like subjects and complements of verbs. Or in other words, the category of the head word doesn't change according to its complement or transitivity. This makes sense if you consider how we treat verbs: in "he drank" vs "he drank alcohol", we wouldn't usually say that the verb changes into another base category just because it is used intransitively. Similarly, in "they regretted the decision" vs "they regretted deciding so early", we wouldn't usually say that "regretted" changes category. So there's little reason to do so for prepositions if you want to be consistent.

On the other hand, you might decide that you do want to encode features of complements in the base category that you assign to a word if it suits your application. So you might want to have an extra category, e.g. called "conjunction", to mean what is effectively a preposition that takes a verbal complement.

For what it's worth, traditional Victorian grammar would generally take the second approach. Though not for any particularly compelling reason.

But it's really up to you: what suits your purposes best?

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Thanks a lot for this in depth analysis!! I am native German and from a German perspective I would tend to use the first approach because in German prepositions are one word (as opposed to 3 word phrases) and they usually function as prepositions exclusively. So in German the category is pretty consistent. To distinguish it from conjunctions you could say, that those relate 2 life action verbs thus joining 2 sentences. – Emanuel Apr 9 '12 at 21:05
Anyway... I explained prepositions in my blog and I realized that the category in English is REALLY hard to grab and define and I didn't really feel the urge to make a distinction between them and the conjunctions... anyway, I ended up skipping the example, as I figured it would be a bit too much for a basic explanation of what preps are. But what you wrote does show how the old Latin view on grammar does force it sometimes... thanks again! – Emanuel Apr 9 '12 at 21:09
I'm not a German specialist, but I suspect that the situation in German isn't terribly different to English. Both languages (and indeed many if not all languages) have a tendency to form colloquations that in effect behave like 'compound prepositions' of some sort (so "in spite of", "in view of", "aside from" etc in English; "in der Nähe (von/des...)", "mithilfe (von/des...)" etc in German). But both languages have a largely similar, fairly closed class of 'base' single-word prepositions. – Neil Coffey Apr 9 '12 at 22:21
...In a detailed analysis of German, you'd need to think about things like e.g. the fact that "zu", "von", "mit" etc have the associated forms "dazu", "davon", "damit", and that e.g. "ohne", "trotz", "wegen" don't (usually) have the forms "*darohne", "*datrotz", "*dawegen". You'd need to think about the fact that 'genitive' prepositions arguably have such a range that the category is semi-productive. And there are also details I'm glossing over in English. :) – Neil Coffey Apr 9 '12 at 22:31

In your example, before is used as a subordinating conjunction.

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Hmmm... I see differing answers here. I would actually think it is a subordinating conjunction too but is there official evidence? Is that undebatable amongst linguists? – Emanuel Apr 9 '12 at 19:02
OK the other answer was just withdrawn :) – Emanuel Apr 9 '12 at 19:05
You may check the related Wikipedia lines: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… – Mehper C. Palavuzlar Apr 9 '12 at 19:07
BTW, welcome to EL&U ! – Mehper C. Palavuzlar Apr 9 '12 at 19:08
Many prepositions can be used as conjunctions, and vice versa. The categories are often unified because they differ only in whether they are followed by a Noun Phrase (prepositions) or by a clause (subordinating conjunctions) -- or even by nothing (particles of phrasal verbs). – John Lawler Apr 9 '12 at 19:42

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