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Which one is correct?

The patterns swam before her eyes.

OR

The patterns swam in front of her eyes.

I know that "before" is mostly used when we talk about the time, but is it right to use "before" when we talk about space? I'm most interested in spoken usage.

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1  
Yes, you can use before to refer to space. No problem. A very common English expression is "Right before my/your eyes." –  tylerharms Nov 27 '12 at 12:15
    
Fun to see my English teacher proven wrong. She was very adamant about "before" being strictly temporal... –  SF. Nov 27 '12 at 16:03
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Nitendra, welcome to ELU. Have you looked up before in a dictionary? What did it say? –  Marthaª Nov 27 '12 at 22:03
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@SF: Really? You can simply Google "before the judge" and find about 18 million counterexamples. –  J.R. Nov 27 '12 at 22:25
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OP's teacher is indeed a fatuous ignoramus. He should point out to her that etymologically speaking, [be]fore began life as a spatial/locative reference, not a temporal one. –  FumbleFingers Nov 27 '12 at 22:41

3 Answers 3

Certainly. The ways in which prepositions are used in English - and probably in other languages - are numerous and often bewildering. I was about to add idiosyncratic, but there is probably a logical explanation behind even the most idiomatic usages, perhaps lost in time. Some grammarians have said that prepositions constitute a class of words both semantic and functional. Prepositional usages are sometimes graded:

central (locative, directional; temporal) (eg on the bed, to the park; before midnight)

semi-idiomatic (eg on the train, at a loss)

peripheral (eg on fire)

As you suggest, before has a locative sense, synonymous with the three-word (sometimes termed 'complex') preposition in front of. Using the word idiomatic in its other main sense now (in common use in the common register), in front of is the more idiomatic of the two choices - before sounds rather poetic, of a slightly refined register.

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+1 What does "peripheral" mean in this sense? Are you talking about complements v. satellites? In other words, what's the centre and what the periphery? –  Cerberus Nov 27 '12 at 12:35
    
I was trying not to use prototypical. At paaljapan.org/resources/proceedings/PAAL10/pdfs/kodachi.pdf is: ...prepositions...have a function to relate X and Y semantically. By doing so, prepositions express the 'spatial' relations between the values X and Y. Here, the concept space has a variety of sub-concepts such as locative, temporal, psychological and social. (Tanaka)...Bennett (1975) advocated localistic theory ... the centre of the relation is locative space, and other sub-concepts are derived from it. (I am aware that CGEL use the term central differently here; EA.) –  Edwin Ashworth Nov 27 '12 at 20:54
    
Ahh, using a spatial metaphor to describe spatial prepositions! That was one layer too many for my poor, old brain. But I understand what you/they mean now. How about primary v. derived sense? Or literal v. metaphorical? Incidentally, you could say temporal use is perhaps derived from spatial use, as it usually happens with conceptual metaphors, like a long time, back in time, at this time, when the time comes, etc. In all this, I feel that spatial usage is primary or older, although I don't have an references on hand. –  Cerberus Nov 28 '12 at 1:47

Both are correct and mean the same thing. Here before simply means in front of.

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Although grammatical and found in earlier writings, I would not suggest using before where it's possible to use in front of in this context -- except when you use an idiomatic expression.

In front of is much clearer; before used in a spatial rather than temporal sense is not very common today.

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I can't agree with this. "Before my eyes" gets 6 million Google hits (almost a million in Google books); the more idiomatic "before my very eyes" gets another 3 million (over 80,000 in Google books), not to mention "before the court," "before the judge," "before the board," and probably a quite a few others as well. I'll grant you that in front of might read more clearly, but I don't think the expression is as antiquated as your answer might seem to imply. –  J.R. Nov 27 '12 at 22:32
    
@JR How many in the "21st century" Books? How many after excluding poetic, idiomatic and backward-reference usages? "Flashing before my eyes: 50 years of headlines, deadlines & punchlines"; "While Before My Eyes describes one family's touching and painful journey,..."; "Their Image Will Be Forever Before My Eyes: ..." -- none of them literal; few of recent/ current reference. Once again: Search & nGrams need to be handled with circumspection. –  Kris Nov 28 '12 at 5:45
    
I wasn't going to leaf through 800K results to get that data – though there are quite a few hits on this constrained-to-21st-century book search. No need for a protracted debate here, though – I think this is a case where we both have a point: this Ngram shows a 20th century decline, but hardly to a point of obscurity, and there's even a 21st cent uptick. –  J.R. Nov 28 '12 at 8:34
    
@J.R. Right. "21st century Book Search" is where I checked first and quoted from. Nice nGram, just as one would expect. –  Kris Nov 28 '12 at 14:42
    
@J.R. You see the damage a hasty down vote could do. –  Kris Nov 28 '12 at 14:43

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