In the sentence "I know him from before", what part of speech is "before"?

Is such a sentence acceptable in the first place? More generally, is the phrase "from before" meaningful?

My question arises from the fact that no dictionary lists "before" as a noun; but from the sentence it appears that "before" is the object of the preposition "from" and refers to the past time of the speaker's life. Why isn't it listed as noun then by dictionaries?

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    "Before" is a preposition, used intransitively in your example. – BillJ Aug 28 '20 at 8:57
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    "From" is a preposition whose complement is the prep "before". "From before" is thus a PP functioning as an adjunct (adverbial) in clause structure. – BillJ Aug 28 '20 at 12:35
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    @Userabc Different people can use different terminology to talk about the same thing. When two people describe the same thing differently, and each uses an internal vocabulary that disagrees with the other person's, then both parties are necessarily "wrong" according to the language of the other. But all it really means is that they disagree in terms of how to approach something. It's contextual and subjective. There is a contradiction because of opposing vocabularies and analyses. All you can do is put yourself within one system, or try to reconcile the two in some way. – Jason Bassford Aug 28 '20 at 13:50
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    Further, modern grammar is far more accurate and better thought-out than the trad stuff. Take, for ex the terms 'gerund' and 'present participle'. Think of the endless questions from learners asking how to distinguish one from the other. We don't need to. All we need to know is whether a word has the syntactic properties of a noun, adjective or verb, and the POS becomes obvious. Modern grammar calls the ing forms simply 'gerund-participles. How sensible is that? And as for terms like 'noun clause' and 'adjective clause' -- well, it simply beggars belief that some people use them. – BillJ Aug 28 '20 at 14:33
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    “Before” is uncontroversially a preposition when it has an NP as complement, and there's no basis for assigning it to different categories according as it takes an NP or a clause -- or no complement at all. Trad grammar has: “before the meeting” (prep+NP complement); “before we arrived” (sub conjunction+clause); “I hadn’t seen her before” (adverb, no complement). This is just a matter of varying complementation, which is commonplace, so it makes good sense to simply call “before” a preposition. – BillJ Aug 28 '20 at 15:16

The most logical explanation I can manage is that “from” and “before” are both acting as prepositions with implied objects:

  • I don’t remember him from [the time(s)] before [this time].
  • I didn’t remember him from [the times(s)] before [that time].

This isn’t something you could do generally because context can rarely supply two implied objects at once.

It’s probably simpler to just accept it as an idiom.


The sentence is a bit informal and context dependent, not something you're likely to see in a formal setting but certainly acceptable in a colloquial sense.

"I know him from before" is missing the information about the past that would normally follow the word "before". The speaker is leaving out information and assuming the listener knows what they mean by "before", e.g. "I know him from before the war" if the listener is assumed to know that "before" must mean "before the war". Many different languages do this sort of shortening or elision where the speaker leaves out information assuming the listener will understand from context. It allows us to speak more briefly, more succinctly.

In that sense "before" isn't the noun, but the beginning of a partially elided noun phrase such as "before the war" from my example. It's clear that "before" can't function as a noun on its own: "the before" doesn't sound quite right, though perhaps you could take some creative license and say "the before-time" to force "before" into being a noun.

If the listener knows what you're talking about, a single word like "before" can take on great significance, conveying that you're referring to a time prior to some major event without explicitly referring to the event.


Merriam-Webster lists before as both an adjective and an adverb in the following sense:

2 : at an earlier time
   // the night before
   // knew her before

In the first phrase, before modifies the noun night, so it's acting as an adjective.
In the second phrase, before modifies the verb knew, so it's acting as an adverb.

Now consider there:

1 : in or at that place
// stand over there —often used interjectionally

We can expand that phrase into a sentence:

  • He stands her over there.

Breaking that down, it's pronoun + verb + pronoun + preposition + adverb.

Based on everything so far:

  • I knew him from before.

Pronoun + verb + pronoun + preposition + adverb.

  • So as per this logic the sentence "He stopped and went on from there" could be broken down as-- Pronoun+verb+conjunction+ phrasal verb+preposition+adverb ? – user120390 Aug 28 '20 at 8:42
  • @Userabc Yes, exactly. – Jason Bassford Aug 28 '20 at 8:44
  • Please check AHD, "there" in this case is listed as a noun and not an adverb. – user120390 Aug 28 '20 at 8:45
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    @Userabc If dictionaries (or grammar guides) disagree as to the classification of a word in exactly the same phrase, then there can be no objective single answer. I based my analysis on Merriam-Webster. But note that Merriam-Webster does also show there as a noun and pronoun—just in different specific constructions that don't match the particular phrases here. As a noun, it shows there is no there. By extension, I could say that before is a noun in the phrase there is no before (despite the fact that it doesn't have an entry for that exact use, I can see no objection). – Jason Bassford Aug 28 '20 at 8:50
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    "Before" is a preposition, here used intransitively. – BillJ Aug 28 '20 at 8:58

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