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I was wondering if someone could help me with the following examples:

1) I need to say "she will be back at 5 o'clock or later than 5." What should I say:

A- She won't be back until 5 o'clock.
B- She won't be back by 5 o'clock.

2) I need to say "we will return on Monday or later." What should I say:

A- We will not return until Monday.
B- We will not return by Monday.

3) He came at 11 o'clock or even later. How should I ask him the reason?

A- Why didn't you come until 11 o’clock?
B- Why didn't you come by 11 o’clock?

4) I need to say I will be ready on Tuesday or even later. What should I say:

A- I won’t be ready until Tuesday.
B- I won’t be ready by Tuesday.

5) I need to say I will be ready at 8 o'clock or later. How should I say it:

A- I can’t be ready until 8 p.m.
B- I can’t be ready by 8 p.m.

6) I need to ask my roommate to be out by 7 PM. and come back at 7PM. or later. What should I say:

A- Please don't be at home until 7 o’clock.
B- Please don't be at home by 7 o’clock.

I think in all of my questions above, only 'A' is correct and 'B' doesn't work at all. Do you confirm it?

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    This is not an answer, but because I've seen you posted several questions related to this, I decide to try to help a bit. First, try to think of an event as either situational (state-like), or punctual (something happens in an instant or takes place only a short period of time). This will involve the concept of stative vs. dynamic verbs (you can Google for that). Then it will be easier to understand the time expressions that use until and by. Until talks about a situation that will continue up to the stated moment. By is usually used with a punctual event. – Damkerng T. Apr 22 '14 at 12:32
  • Also note that some verbs (e.g. be) are tricky. And negation can invert the way we think of the event. But all in all, the situational vs. punctual idea is the key to understand the usages. – Damkerng T. Apr 22 '14 at 12:34
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    You should rename your "final question about until and by" :-) – snailcar Apr 22 '14 at 12:47
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In all cases - either would be fine. Each has different emphasis, however. If you say "X won't/can't happen until Y" you imply that Y is a prerequisite and that X will happen soon after. With "X won't/can't happen by Y" you are saying Y is the earliest possible point that X can occur and thus emphasizing that it is likely to happen noticeably later.

To take one of your examples:

"I can’t be ready until 8 p.m." OR "I can't be ready before 8 p.m."

These would lead me to believe you will probably be ready between 8:00pm and 8:30pm. (The range depends on the unit of time you use, the activity in question, and the person's patience with you. Half-an-hour is strictly for this example.)

"I can’t be ready by 8 p.m." OR "I can't be ready until after 8 p.m."

These would lead me to ask when can you be ready by? These simply state the absolute soonest something could happen without implying that you would be ready soon after 8 p.m. at the same time.

They all work. Which one you use should depend on what you want to imply to the listener.


In response to your comment, I've added interpretations of the other sentences. For the most part they are all similar, although they do have nuances. Keep in mind that exact clock times are meant to be taken only as an estimate.

She won't be back until 5 o'clock.

I would expect her back around 5 o'clock. Anywhere from 4:50 to 5:10 would be within reason.

She won't be back by 5 o'clock.

I wouldn't expect her to return any earlier than 5:10 - possibly much later.

We will not return until Monday.

A native speaker would expect you back on Monday. They would definitely not expect you back on Sunday or sooner. They would expect you would not arrive after Monday without unexpected delays.

We will not return by Monday.

I would expect you will return Tuesday or later. This would likely prompt me to ask "When will you return?"

Why didn't you come until 11 o’clock?

This implies you expected me at some time well before 11 o'clock, but that I arrived somewhere from 10:50 to 11:10.

Why didn't you come by 11 o’clock?

This implies that you expected me somewhere from 10:50 to 11:10, but that I arrived well after 11 o'clock.

I won’t be ready until Tuesday.

I would expect you ready on Tuesday. This statement would likely be taken as a promise that you will be ready on Tuesday and no later without a good excuse.

I won’t be ready by Tuesday.

I would expect you to be ready Wednesday or later. This would likely prompt me to ask "When will you be ready?"

Please don't be at home until 7 o’clock.

This tells me you do not want me home before 7 o'clock, but arriving at exactly 7 o'clock is acceptable. Without context this can be a very suspicious thing to request of someone.

Please don't be at home by 7 o’clock.

This tells me you do not want me home before 7 o'clock. This also implies that you would like me to delay my arrival a bit more - possibly by half an hour (subject to an individual's interpretation and patience). This is also a very suspicious thing to request of someone without context.

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1) She will be back sometime after 5.

2) We will not return until Monday, or later.

3) Why weren't you here by 11?

4) I'll be ready on Tuesday or later.

5) I'll be ready after 8pm.

6) Please don't come home until after 7pm. OR Can you stay out until 7?

These are how one would just say these, they may not be as specific as you like.

  • Then supposing that I need to say: 1) "she will not be back while it is not 5 o'clock (before 5 o’clock)." Then what should I say? 2) "we will not return while it is not Monday (before Monday)." What should I then? 3) “He didn’t come while it was not 11 o'clock (before 11 o’clock).” How should I ask him the reason? 4) “I will not be ready while it is not Tuesday (before Tuesday).” What should I say? 5) “I will not be ready while it is not 8 o'clock (before 8).” How should I say it? 6) “Don’t be back while it is not 7PM. (before 7PM.)” What should I say? – A-friend Apr 22 '14 at 11:36
  • Sorry, too hard to read but you're probably looking for "until after" in all cases. – Johns-305 Apr 22 '14 at 11:52
  • as Alexsander has mentioned above, "I can’t be ready until 8 p.m" makes a perfect sense in the way I need it! Would you please let me know, why you suggested something else? (you said: "I'll be ready after 8pm.")! But why?! – A-friend Apr 23 '14 at 5:56
  • Because it's shorter. – Johns-305 Apr 23 '14 at 13:44
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I think the phrase you're looking for is "at least" or "at the earliest." In your first example:

She won't be back until five o'clock.

implies that she will be back at, or close to, five o'clock.

She won't be back by five o'clock.

implies that if she's not back by five o'clock, it doesn't matter when she gets back. It would sound awkward to use if there wasn't a five o'clock deadline. On the other hand:

She won't be back until at least five o'clock.

or

She won't be back until five o'clock at the earliest.

says just what you want to say: she might be back at five o'clock, or she might be back later than that, but she certainly won't get here before five.

Here are a few examples of when you might use these three constructions:

Do you know when Sue will be back from lunch?

She won't be back until five o'clock.

Okay, I'll talk to her then.

.

Can Sue close up the shop?

No, she won't be back by five o'clock. One of you will have to do it.

.

Hey, will Sue get here anytime soon?

No, she won't be back until at least five o'clock.

No, she won't be back until five at the earliest.

That takes care of your questions 1, 2, 4, and 5.

For 3, use your choice A if he arrived at 11 o'clock, and add "after" if he arrived after 11 o'clock.

For 6, neither of your choices are idiomatic.

Please don't be at home until 7 o'clock

means you want him to do something else other than stay home between now and seven. This sounds very awkward. It does not suggest that he shouldn't be here at seven, or after seven.

Please don't be at home by 7 o'clock

to the extent it means anything, means that he should get home after seven, but it doesn't suggest that he's leaving now.

The closest English sentence to what I think you're looking for is:

Please don't be home at 7 o'clock

which is telling him to be gone at seven, meaning he would have to leave by seven and not come back until afterwards. But it also suggests a very short or specific absence: for example, "The bomb is set for 7 PM exactly. I would suggest that you might not want to be home at seven o'clock."

It would be more idiomatic to say something like:

I have a date at seven. Can you be gone by then?

or

My date gets here at seven. Can you be out of the house from seven to nine?

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