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My friend and I are having a debate about the following sentence and what to slot into the gap:

______ we had finished the course, we received certificates. (Before/After)

To me it sounds correct to use either before/after in the sentence, like this:

"After we had finished the course, we received certificates". (We finished the course and then received certificates after that).

"Before we had finished the course, we received certificates". (We received certificates before the end of the course).

My friend, however, argues that the action expressed in the past perfect ("had finished") must always be the preceding action, followed by the past simple ("received certificates") and so it is ungrammatical to use "before" here.

Which interpretation of the grammar is correct here?

  • There may be something specific about putting the Before... clause first. "We received our certificates before we had finished the course" is fine. – Andrew Leach Dec 29 '14 at 14:09
  • To me putting either clause first carries the same meaning though. Your suggestion sounds better, but no meaning change between the two, no? – JayJay Dec 29 '14 at 14:21
  • No, no difference in meaning; but it certainly sounds more awkward. There may be a technical reason why that is. – Andrew Leach Dec 29 '14 at 14:23
  • I'm non-native, but I wonder if it would sound better when the sentence reads "Already before..."?! – Em1 Dec 29 '14 at 15:00
  • @Andrew Nothing technical, just that particular sentence. Compare: “I tried to tell him I hadn’t done it on purpose and was sorry, but before I’d even gotten the first three words out, he turned on his heel and stomped out in a huff.” Here either order works equally well. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Dec 29 '14 at 16:42
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Both are fine grammatically, and if anything before is the one where the the past perfect is the more useful.

Consider:

The desert course was a simple panna cotta. Before we had finished the course, we received certificates.

As the first sentence has set up the circumstances of the course, the perfect "had finished" gives us a period with an end in the past, and the before places the simple "we received certificates" within that period, just as after would place it subsequently.

It's not merely grammatical, but its perfectly fine in other regards too.

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It is not so that the action expressed in the past perfect must always be the preceding action. Swan in Practical English Usage (p99) gives the example:

He went out out before I had finished my sentence,

and continues:

Note that ... a past perfect tense can refer to a time later than the action of the main verb. This is unusual.

The reason why Before we had finished the course, we received certificates sounds a little awkward to me too, may be to do with information packaging and end-focus. End-focus expects the new or important information to be at the end of the sentence.

The unusual (new, or important) information in this case is not the receiving of certificates (which is a given), but the receiving of certificates before finishing the course. And this may be the reason why:

We received certificates before we had finished the course sounds less marked.

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