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This question is inspired by a chat conversation during which I was corrected on the use of after long. Certainly,

He will be back before long

is correct. However, is

He will be back after long

grammatical? If not, why does changing before to after make it wrong?

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ODO says that long is a mass noun, not an adverb. However the answer is almost certainly one of idiom. –  Andrew Leach Nov 15 '12 at 21:16
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"after long" is not grammatical. "before long" means "before a long time has passed" somewhat of a litotes. –  Mitch Nov 15 '12 at 21:19
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Long does not work as an adverb here; the entire phrase "before long" works as an adverb. And the entire phrase is an idiom. You can't replace before with after for much the same reason you can't replace cats with cows in "it's raining cats and dogs". –  RegDwigнt Nov 15 '12 at 21:19
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Long is short for a long time in this sense; and it occurs in other environments as well. It's a Negative Polarity Item in It didn't take long. vs *It took long. Before long is an idiom; after long isn't -- after a long time is OK, but it's not common enough to license the deletion and semantic freezing. –  John Lawler Nov 15 '12 at 21:23
    
You could expand it some, and say, for example, "He will be back after a long delay." I think "before long" is simply an established idiom for "before much time elapses." –  J.R. Nov 15 '12 at 21:28
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1 Answer

up vote 3 down vote accepted

I think this is just a matter of idiomatic usage. This NGram suggests that before long didn't really become established until early/mid C19, and many of the (relatively few) earlier instances involve extended forms such as "before long time be spent".

To my mind, all that's happened is that before long has become an established shortened form of before a long time [passes/has passed/had passed].

As it happens, the corresponding shortening didn't occur with after long. There's no special reason why it should have, and thus no reason to say this fundamentally differentiates before and after.


As John comments, long itself is often a Negative Polarity Item, which is why we can say "It didn't take long", but not *"It took long". Possibly (I'm guessing wildly here) this encouraged the uptake of before long (because "before" there effectively negates the long passage of time), whereas with after long you'd be affirming that passage of time.

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COCA has 286 cites for "after long", but only two of them are relevant at all (the rest is of the form "after long [noun]"). 1. 1994, The Shawshank Redemption: "First you hate' em, then you get used to' em. After long enough, you get so you depend on' em." 2. 1995, SPOKEN: "LIMBAUGH: I'll tell you what. Somebody points their finger that close to me, that many times does not have that finger after long, I'll tell you." The first one has that appendix, enough, that ruins it for us, and the second one is careless speech, possibly even a one-off error. At any rate, not much to work with. –  RegDwigнt Nov 15 '12 at 22:02
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@Will Hunting: I hope not after long, I shall be able to write something more satisfactory. That's from 1841, which may or may not be relevant to the fact that it sounds "archaic" to me. Curiously, I note several apparently non-native speakers writing "not after long the...", so maybe they've latched on to the "negative polarity" bit, but didn't know about the "established idiom" side of things. –  FumbleFingers Nov 15 '12 at 22:13
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protected by Will Hunting Nov 17 '12 at 6:23

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