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  • They backed out of the deal the day before they were due to sign the contract.

  • They backed out of the deal before the day they were due to sign the contract.

What is the difference in meaning between these sentences?

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"The day before" means exactly one day before. If they were due to sign the contract on Friday, this means they backed out on Thursday.

"Before the day" could be any time before the specified day. They might have backed out Tuesday or Wednesday or weeks before the schedule day.

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    "Before the day" also sounds a lot like "any time before daytime". – Spencer Williams Jan 25 '18 at 23:40
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    To me the second construction sounds a little awkward. If "they" backed out at some unspecified time before the contract was due to be signed, why not just write "They backed out of the deal before they were due to sign the contract."? – Deepak Jan 26 '18 at 1:06
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    @SpencerWilliams It could mean that by itself, but not as used in the sentence in the question. – Barmar Jan 26 '18 at 1:55
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    @Deepak That could include backing out on the same day, but at an earlier hour. "before the day" means it was the previous day or earlier. – Barmar Jan 26 '18 at 1:56
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    @Deepak "[I]t seems pointless to try to be precise about the withdrawal being before the actual day, but remaining imprecise about [how far before]" Not necessarily. By saying that they withdrew before the actual day, you're saying that they gave at least a little notice. In some contexts, that might be important. (Consider somebody backing out of their wedding at least a day before it was supposed to happen, versus five minutes before.) – David Richerby Jan 26 '18 at 17:19

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