Especially in speeches I often hear a sentence like

I stand here before you...

However during my English classes in school (I'm German) we were told that before should only be used if you're referring to the passage of time (before we arrived at the party we left our home). When referring to a location in front of should be the choice of words (Peter is standing in front of me, so I'm standing behind him).

So, what's the answer to my confusion?

  • 3
    "i before e, except after c."
    – OneProton
    Aug 23, 2010 at 7:22
  • right! how often have a recited that sentence and never noticed it ;) Aug 23, 2010 at 7:38
  • I believe that sometimes English is simplified in classes taught to foreigners. If you use in front of rather than before for non-temporal uses, I don't think you'll ever be wrong (now watch somebody find a counterexample), whereas some times you cannot replace in front of with before. So it may be a reasonable simplification for learning English as a foreign language, even though it's actually incorrect. Aug 25, 2011 at 19:21
  • Note that by saying "Peter is standing in front of me, so I'm standing behind him" you're assuming that Peter and you are oriented equivalently, e.g. both facing a wall. What you've said doesn't apply to two people facing each other, e.g. when talking with each other. In that case you're both standing in front of each other. Feb 5, 2016 at 19:35

4 Answers 4


What you were taught is the usual way, so it's a case of being taught a heuristic rule which is 99% correct but doesn't actually apply to all cases. This is a more formal usage of "before", but there are lots of other examples of "before" for places and locations, e.g. "Two Years Before the Mast".


The New Oxford American Dictionary reports the following definition:

before |bəˈfɔ(ə)r| |biˈfɔ(ə)r|
preposition, conjunction, & adverb
1. during the period of time preceding (a particular event, date, or time): [as prep.] she had to rest before dinner | the day before yesterday | before the war | [as conj.] they lived rough for four days before they were arrested | it wasn't long before I had my first bite | [as adv.] his playing days had ended six years before | it's never happened to me before.
2. in front of: [as prep.] Matilda stood before her, panting | the patterns swam before her eyes | [as adv.] archaic trotting through the city with guards running before and behind.
• [ prep.] in front of and required to answer to (a court of law, tribunal, or other authority): he could be taken before a magistrate for punishment | a fall in the number of cases brought before the courts.
3. in preference to; with a higher priority than: [as prep.] a woman who placed duty before all else | [as conj.] they would die before they would cooperate with each other.

As you see, there are many examples where before doesn't have a temporal meaning.


"I stand here, before you now, truthfully unafraid. Why? Because I believe something you do not? No, I stand here without fear because I remember ..."



"Before" in this sense is more concise and therefore more elegant than "in front of." I don't hesitate to use "before" like this in formal writing, though less often in speech.

  • Do you have a source for your answer?
    – AAM111
    Nov 30, 2017 at 21:12
  • @AAM111: Why would he need a source for that "before" is more concise than "in front of"? Just count the letters, and if that's not enough, compare what reads more fluently ;-) (I know it's an old thread, but I just today had the same question when seeing "before my office" in an email)
    – mic
    Jan 8 at 7:32
  • I'm not certain what I was thinking six years ago, but I probably wanted a source for the implicit assertion that a phrase more concise than another is consequently more elegant.
    – AAM111
    Jan 8 at 17:29

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