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Recently my girlfriend wrote to me:

This reminds me of the time before we were together.

Later she corrected herself:

This reminds me of the time before we are together.

Her logic being that we are still together. However, I feel like the latter is incorrect. Even though the more correct way of saying this is probably (as suggested by our American friend):

This reminds me of the time from before we were together.

– it is still confusing to her why the verb is "were" and not "are". And confusing to me, because I don't know the grammar rules behind these sentences.

How would you explain this to a couple of non-native English speakers?

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Your girlfriend's first sentence is correct.

The phrase "the time before" can only be used to refer to a time in the past. Your girlfriend is talking about a time in the past when the two of you had not yet started a relationship. That period of time is now in the past and did not continue into the present, therefore it must be spoken about in the past tense.

So, you are now together, and you have been together since your relationship started (presumably), but before then there was a time when you were not together. Using "were" in this way does not imply that your relationship only existed in the past, it simply means that the moment in which you came together as a couple is now in the past.

Your girlfriend's second sentence is not grammatically correct. However, I admire her romantic inclinations.

I cannot comment on the sentence from your American friend. Although American English and British English usually follow the same grammar rules, there are times when they do not. I speak British English and that sentence sounded slightly off to me, but it may be perfectly acceptable in the US.

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    In American English, when we want to specify the time when something originated or happened, we can use from and I think in this respect we're no different from British English: That textbook is from my university days or That old scar is from my time as a lion tamer. And so it's possible to say something like But this other scar is from before my time as a lion tamer. That injury happened when I was in kindergarten. However, the the time from before we were together is rather awkward because of the pleonasm. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Jun 7 '18 at 16:45
  • @ Tᴚoɯɐuo Yes, 'from' can definitely be used in British English in the way you suggest. As the sentence was suggested by an American friend of the OP, I was not sure if the sentence would sound as awkward to American ears as it did to mine. I am glad to know that it does. – James Jun 7 '18 at 17:07
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    This is a general example of backshifting the sentence to a perspective earlier in time. English speakers often do this to match the subject or context of the sentence. e.g. "When I was growing up we lived the house that we still live in today." Or how I get into trouble when talking with my current wife about past events, because I unconsciously refer to my ex-wife as my "wife" because we were married at the time. e.g. "My wife and I -- I mean my ex-wife and I -- bought this house back in 2001" – Andrew Jun 7 '18 at 17:13
  • Thanks, everyone! Great explanation. To be fair, my American friend preferred his another shorter formulation, that I put in the title: “This reminds me of before we were together”. – Andriy Makukha Jun 7 '18 at 18:18

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