3

He will come back in two hours.

vs.

He will come back after two hours.

What's the subtle diff?

  • 1
    There isn't any "diff". If the intended sense is that he may return at any time during the next two hours (but not later), that would be phrased as "He will come back within two hours". – FumbleFingers Nov 19 '14 at 13:48
  • 1
    @FumbleFingers there could be a difference if the person hasn't left yet. "He will go in one hour and come back after two hours." – curiousdannii Nov 19 '14 at 13:53
  • @FumbleFingers I would argue that the implications do differ, more than subtly. – itsbruce Nov 19 '14 at 13:56
  • @curiousdannii: That just creates an ambiguity that's not relevant to OP's context. Will he return two hours after the time of speaking, or two hours after he leaves? (i.e. - three hours after time of speaking). – FumbleFingers Nov 19 '14 at 13:57
  • 1
    I'm not sure why you're asking the question, but the biggest difference to my ear is that the second phrase was uttered by someone who isn't a native English speaker. The second phrase sounds unnatural to me; though I've heard non-native English speakers express this idea in this way. – Dan Nov 19 '14 at 22:27
6

He will come back in two hours

This strongly implies that his return will be in two hours from now (the point in time at which this statement is made).

He will come back after two hours

This implies he will return two hours after some instance which has previously been discussed or indicated. For example:

He will leave when he has finished fixing his bicycle. He will come back after two hours

In which case, the time of his return is undefined because the time required to fix his bicycle is uncertain. Contrast this with

He left as soon as he fixed his bicycle. He will come back in two hours.

Doesn't matter how long ago he left; he will return two hours from now.

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  • 1
    Yes, and to add or further clarify: "after" and "later" and "before" are typically used to talk about time from a past or future time (but not the present time). "In," "from now," and "ago" are used to talk about time from now. – Rusty Tuba Nov 19 '14 at 14:29
  • I don't buy this answer. "He will leave when he has finished fixing his bicycle. He will come back after two hours." could still be interpreted to mean that he will finish fixing his bicycle AND come back two hours from now. If the second sentence was "He will come back two hours after." then I'd be more inclined to agree. – talrnu Nov 19 '14 at 20:11
  • "Could still" - maybe. I used "implies" rather than simply an absolute "means" with care, to say this is the likely interpretation. However, I would see your alternative as a bad interpretation unless there was extra context. I believe my interpretation is more likely to be inferred, by more people. Thus far, the number of up votes compared to your down vote provide a very crude validation. – itsbruce Nov 19 '14 at 20:38
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    @talrnu Could you provide some instances of native speakers using after in this sense? I for one have never heard a native speaker do so in my life—it is in fact one of the most frequent errors that clearly mark Chinese and Japanese speakers as such, in my experience. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Nov 22 '14 at 2:35
  • @JanusBahsJacquet I have no examples unfortunately, only anecdotal evidence and a native speaker's intuition. I think it might help if I elaborate: you could say there's an implied "that" associated with the use of after I provide, i.e. "He will come back two hours after [that]." This makes it absolutely clear that the two hour period begins when the bicycle repairs are finished and not right now. Without that degree of clarity, I'd be uncertain when the two hours begins, and would have to ask for a more specific indication. – talrnu Nov 24 '14 at 15:03
3

"He will come back in two hours" implies that he will be back in exactly (or just around) two hours. "He will come back after two hours" implies that he ill return sometime after (could be a much longer time) two hours has passed.

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3

He will come back in two hours

It is 6pm. At 8pm he will be knocking on the door, though he might get back earlier.

He will come back after two hours.

It is 6pm. The earliest he will come back until after 8:01pm, but probably later.

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  • "though he might get back earlier." or a little later. I would not infer "within this period or less" unless inside or within had been used, rather than simple in. I do agree that "after two hours" implies "at least two hours, possibly more" but wouldn't say "probably". – itsbruce Nov 19 '14 at 20:44
  • If I leave at 6pm saying "I'll be back in two hours" and I get back 90 minutes later, I don't think anybody will be angry saying "Hey! Yousaid two hours but this is 90 minutes!" On the other hand, if I got back after 3 hours I could justifiably be accused of being late, hence "might get back earlier". I say "probably later" than 8:01pm because if I were expecting to be back shortly after 8pm I wouldn't say "after two hours". I would more likely say "in around two hours", so to justify "after two hours" it would have to be significantly after 8pm. – Roaring Fish Nov 20 '14 at 4:46

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