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a. It was six months away from his graduation from college.

b. It was six months from his graduation from college.


c. He was six months away from graduating from college.

d. He was six months from graduating from college.


Can one tell if 'away from' and 'from' mean 'before' or 'after' in these sentences?

Many thanks

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Using "from" in the examples you provided is confusing, it creates ambiguity. For starters, the phrase "away from" is commonly used to measure distance, not time. So examples a and c are dismissed.

Regarding b and d, it's not conclusive whether we are talking about a point of time before or after graduation. Say we are in the year 2019 and graduation was on the 1st of January 2018. Whether we look at b or d, it could refer to six months before or after graduation. You could be talking about the 1st of July 2018, and you could be talking about the 1st of July 2017. To fix this ambiguity, you can use "until", or "after", or whatever other preposition you find fit.

  • I think it's fine to use 'away' when talking about time. We routinely say, 'My birthday is five days away!', or 'Passover is only a month away - time to get ready.' – dwilli Sep 6 at 4:01
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I would say that at face value all of these sentences refer to a time before his graduation. Technically, it's true that the are ambiguous, but I think that most speakers would resolve the ambiguity for themselves by assuming they meant before, if there were no other context to make their meaning clear.

Of course, these sentences wouldn't be without context, and the context is where we would derive more understanding of their intended meaning.

It was six months from his graduation from college. He was glad it was over.
It was six months from his graduation from college. He was filled with anticipation of the ceremony.

The sentences that use 'away from' are more clearly referencing the period before than the ones without 'away'. I can't think of any context where this usage would mean after.

Without the word 'away' it is less clear whether the meaning is before or after.

We would normally use 'after' instead of 'from' to indicate the period after he graduated.

It was six months after his graduation from college.

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