As a native speaker of German, I have the habit of negating every sentence with the word 'until' or 'before' and every time I do that, my fiancee, who is American, calls me out. It sounds right to my German ears, but I can't explain why, though. She tried to give me some examples as to why it doesn't make sense in English, but I couldn't understand it. I hope someone in this forum can enlighten me.

Let's look at these sentences:

You can't buy the car until you do not have the money from the bank.

You should not change lanes before you do not see the car in the rearview mirror

Both sound natural to my German ears because it is something I would also say in German. However, my fiancee always gives me a confused look when I say sentences like the above. She says it should be like this:

You can not buy the car until you have the money from the bank.

You should not change lanes before you see the car in the review mirror

It sounds so off to me.The word 'until' suggests duration for me, as in 'from - to'. You can't do something from moment x to moment y, and y being the 'interruption' of that duration. That is, you can not buy the car as long as you do not have the money. I apply the same logic to the word 'before'. You should not change lanes as long as you do not see the car driving next to you in the rearview mirror.

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    I think if you put both sentences on a timeline it makes it easier for you to figure out how it works. Put a dot on a straight horizontal line, go to right a bit and put another dot (representing the point you have the money to buy a car). Now draw a line in a different color. The line you just drew is the period during which you can't buy a car because you don't have the money. Until describes this duration by talking about where it ends (it means the second dot) not the duration itself. Describing what's going on in the line is the job of the clause not starting with until.
    – Yuri
    Sep 30, 2016 at 20:41
  • Let me ask you a question that might help us both understand the issue. Suppose that it is 7:30, and you are standing in front of a store that opens at 8. Would you say, "I cannot enter until it is 8" or "I cannot enter until it is NOT 8"? Thinking about that question might help - obviously, if it is 7:30, it is right now "not 8", but you still cannot enter.
    – stangdon
    Sep 30, 2016 at 21:33
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    Native German speaker here: I hate to tell you, but if I do a direct backwards translation, they are very colloquial, possibly with a tinge of dialect. And it vaguely resembles the double negative in English.
    – Stephie
    Sep 30, 2016 at 21:59
  • @Chris note that in both of your sentences I can relace until (to the time that) and before (earlier than the time that) with when (at the time that) and make the correct meaning in English. Again I recomment you think of them on a timeline. Seeing cars in the mirror a dot on the timeline. Obviously the line before this dot is when you don't see cars, during which you shouldn't change lanes. I hope my previous comment about until was clear enough and helpful.
    – Yuri
    Sep 30, 2016 at 22:04
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    @Lawrence People that grew up in my area would probably say " They didn't do anything until we came ". My example sentences follow a 'greyzone' pattern that is commonly accepted in my dialect ( apparently). Meaning, if someone would say " They won't do anything until we don't say anything" it would be accepted and understood.
    – Chris
    Oct 1, 2016 at 1:55

2 Answers 2


"Until" is an indicator of a changing state.

"You can't buy the car" indicates the current state.

"Until" indicates that the next statement will define the condition under which that state will change.

"You have the money in the bank".

"Before" is similar. It describes a state that is terminated by a certain event. You can only change lanes when a certain condition is met; prior to that condition, you cannot change lanes. 'Before' indicates an earlier time.

I think the English word you're looking for would be "while". 'While' indicates an ongoing duration; 'Until' indicates the termination of that duration. "You cannot buy the car while you do not have the money in the bank" - during the time that you do not have money in the bank, you cannot buy the car. "You cannot change lines while you do not see the car in the mirror" - during the time that you cannot see the car in the mirror, you cannot change lanes.

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    Thank you! I tried to say the same sentences in German and found that I would use the word ' when'. Could I also use that in English? 'You can't change lanes when you don't see the car in the rearview mirror'
    – Chris
    Sep 30, 2016 at 20:42
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    Yes, 'when' would also be apprpriate there. 'When' tends to indicate a precise point in time (when the traffic light changes); 'While' indicates a duration (while the traffic light is green). Both would be appropriate in your examples.
    – Werrf
    Sep 30, 2016 at 20:53
  • To confuse things further, in Yorkshire (where I live) and surrounding counties, "while" is often used in the sense of "until". This confuses people from other parts of England!
    – Colin Fine
    Sep 30, 2016 at 22:38
  • @ Colin Fine, I can see why you guys use 'while' in the sense of 'until'. British English and its dialects seem to be closer to German compared to American English.
    – Chris
    Oct 1, 2016 at 22:47

It's easy. Try to memorize it this way: don't use negative sentences with UNTIL. In such sentences the word includes a negation already (kind of) and in English we don't use double negations. This is why it sounds strange to your fiancee. I agree with her versions of the sentences, i.e. - You can not buy the car until you have the money from the bank. (and not "until you don't have the money...")

Another way to remember it (and probably more correct to explain) is that in such a sentence you use two actions. Action 1 will not happen UNTIL Action 2 happens (note: not until Action 2 does not happen!). The same applies to BEFORE.

Therefore: Example 1: You should not change lanes (Action 1) BEFORE you see the car (Action 2) in the review mirror (and not "... before you don't see...)

Example 2: You can not buy the car (Action 1) UNTIL you have the money (Action 2) from the bank. (and not "until you don't have the money...")

Side note: forget your German ear if you want to speak a foreign language correctly. one-to-one translations are often incorrect. The adult mind tries to analyze and adjust everything to what it knows already. Children don't analyze, they simply accept the fact that this is how we say it in Enlgish/ Spanish/ Italian/ German/ any other language - and they get it right. Try to go this way and both you and your fiancee will be happy :))))

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