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Are either of the following sentences grammatically incorrect? Assuming they are both correct, is one preferred over the other? If so, in what situations is each preferred?

  1. I eat kittens before ponies.
  2. I eat kittens before I eat ponies.

I have the same set of questions for the following sentences:

  1. I put sprinkles on unicorns before lumberjacks.
  2. I put sprinkles on unicorns before on lumberjacks.
  3. I put sprinkles on unicorns before I put sprinkles on lumberjacks.
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    Seriously? Kittens before ponies, are they some sort of starter course? Do you eat their fur as well :) Are you writing a fairy tale by any chance?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jun 21, 2015 at 4:47
  • The kitten sentences are all grammatical. Unicorn sentence 2 is awkward, I might omit "on" in front of lumberjacks, and replace it with "the" (before the lumberjacks). Sentence 3 is grammatical but a bit redundant.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jun 21, 2015 at 4:53
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    Note that "before X" can be understood as "in front of X," which can make interpreting the sense you intend more difficult—particularly in situations where, for example, "I put sprinkles on unicorns in front of lumberjacks" seems every bit as realistic as either "I put sprinkles on unicorns before I put sprinkles on lumberjacks" or "I put sprinkles on unicorns before lumberjacks put sprinkles on unicorns."
    – Sven Yargs
    Jun 21, 2015 at 5:32
  • I hope these are all hypothetical: I would eat kittens before I’d eat ponies. I’d put sprinkles on unicorns before lumberjacks.
    – Jim
    Jun 21, 2015 at 7:12
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    @NickVolynkin: Thank you, but my comment doesn't really answer the OP's question; it just complicates it further.
    – Sven Yargs
    Jun 21, 2015 at 7:49

2 Answers 2

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I believe "I eat kittens before ponies" implies "I eat kittens before I eat ponies." Both are grammatically correct. If you want ponies to assume a more active role in the sentence, say "I eat kittens before ponies do."

Same thing for unicorns and lumberjacks, although #2 is a bit tragic. I think it might miraculously not be incorrect - but it's still awful, which is just as useless. They all mean the same thing. To make lumberjacks active, say "I put sprinkles on unicorns before lumberjacks do."

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    You've changed the meaning. "I eat kittens before ponies do" means I eat kittens before the ponies can eat them. (I can't believe I'm writing about kittens and unicorns)
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jun 21, 2015 at 5:39
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    Yeah, I was just saying that both versions in your example mean the same thing (and are both grammatically correct). Mine was an illustration of how you would have to change them to make their meaning different.
    – Misha R
    Jun 21, 2015 at 5:50
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You can't have "before on"; it makes for a double-take.

I think probably double prepositions have to be compound prepositions:

"I lost 50p down the back of the sofa."
"He climbed up under the tarpaulin to hide.
There's Fire Down Below: sea shanty, with adverbs.

Except when you repeat the verb, when it unambiguously means first one, then the other, the sentence can mean "if given the choice, I would prefer."

I vote green before UKIP. I vote UKIP before Respect,
I figure out Sudoku before Codeword.

Grammatically these mean either I prefer the first; or I do one and then the other.

These ambiguities are in addition to those mentioned by @Misha_Rosnach

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  • What defines a double-take? I can't seem to find a grammar-related definition of it. Is there another word for it? Wondering, because I believe "before on" might be one of those delightful word combinations that managed to fall through the cracks of grammar rules due to their sheer awkwardness.
    – Misha R
    Jun 21, 2015 at 6:20
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    @Misha Rosnach In cartoons, X walks by; and then swivels back to take a second look at something weird. In psycho-linguistics eye-movements can show when a reader has to re-read a sentence after getting embroigled. The words here are awkward because the brain thinks 'compound preposition' before it stops, reads again, reformulates the syntax, carries on.
    – Hugh
    Jun 21, 2015 at 7:55
  • Or triple; ante-pre-pen-ultimate.
    – Hugh
    Jun 21, 2015 at 8:06
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    Perhaps the brain might think that, but it isn't a compound preposition. I don't think anything technically forbids it from being there, other than the brain.
    – Misha R
    Jun 21, 2015 at 12:56

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