Which one is correct?

The patterns swam before her eyes.


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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    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

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_Reinstate_Monica 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_Reinstate_Monica 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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Prepositions have metaphorical uses that derrive from abstract meaning, as in "to be on duty", that doesn't exactly mean the same as "the book is on the table", or as in "to be under oath", that doesn't mean exactly the same as "to be under the table".

However, if you think in abstract terms, "on duty" lies on a "time table", time being the support necessary to what you do on duty, and "under oath" implies that what you say or do is submitted to an authority "above" you.

Now if you put friendship before money, it doesn't mean that you do something before another, but that you prefer friendship to money, and that friendship comes first in the order of values, rather than in the order of time, although there is a time of comparison : the first value is compared to the second.

The verb "prefer" carries the same idea : from Latin "prae" (before, in front) and "ferre" (put, set), so you can say "I prefer friendship to money" or "I put friendship before money". It also means that you put the first value above the other.

Similarly, if you appear before a judge it means that you appear before the eyes of an authority that is above you. So you might be "in front of the judge" but is isn't the same as being "before the judge" or "before a court".

You might also say "I'm in front of a house", but it doesn't mean the same as "I stopped before a large white house". The second implies that you're under the spell of its beauty.

BEFORE is far more subjective than IN FRONT OF. That's why you can be submitted to feelings when something appear before your eyes or submitted to authority if you appear before a judge.

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These are synonyms do represent two different ideas:

I stand in front of the court.


I stand before the court.

The first implies location and direction while the other implies "in the presence".


before my eyes

Implies presence while

In front of my eyes

Implies location. The former would mean that it happened and you were participant if only as an observer. The latter implies that there was something flitting around (think fly, blindfold, or glasses).

Should also note: you'd generally not say, "before" unless it is in the context of people (or animals). "Before the chair" implies time or direction along a route (there is also a sense of "after" in both cases).

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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
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    @DavidGarner That's what made me begin my argument with an although ...! – Kris Mar 2 '16 at 9:51

"Before" is simply more efficient. In good English, I believe "less is more"—so why use three words when one will do?

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