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There are the following sentences:

  • "I had been waiting for three months before they finally sent me an answer"
  • "He had been waiting for the bus for 10 minutes before it arrived"

Does "before" essentially mean "when" in these sentences? I think this is why the past perfect continuous is used in them.

There are other sentences which have "before" in them and that aren't in the past perfect continuous tense. For example:

  • "Marilyn was a factory worker before she was a model"
  • "They were married for 10 years before they got divorced"
  • "I was dissembling before you were born"

Am I right in thinking that the past perfect continuous is needed when "before" means "when" (in the meaning "by the time")?

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  • if you try to substitute 'when' for 'before', you will see it doesn't make much sense... Commented Dec 19, 2020 at 12:26
  • 2
    'Before' doesn't mean 'when', but either word can be used when referring to the situation up to the time that something happened. Commented Dec 19, 2020 at 13:06
  • @AndrewTobilko I disagree. The first two make perfect sense. The last three sentences don't.
    – Let
    Commented Dec 19, 2020 at 14:41

3 Answers 3

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  • "I was waiting for three months before they finally sent me an answer"
  • "He was waiting for the bus for 10 minutes before it arrived"

These are grammatically correct, and mean the same thing as the originals.

1
  • Sorry, don't know grammar books, probably not as well as you do, anyway. I'm a native US English speaker, college-educated, am basing this on what I've heard and read for many years.
    – rcook
    Commented Dec 20, 2020 at 0:06
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The "before" here is performing its normal job of joining two phrases which are separated in time. The tense of the phrases being joined is unaffected.

The meaning would be essentially unchanged if you joined them with something else, such as "and then" or "after that":

  • "I had been waiting for three months; and then they finally sent me an answer"
  • "He had been waiting for the bus for 10 minutes; after that, it arrived"
  • "Marilyn was a factory worker; after that, she was a model"
  • "They were married for 10 years; and then they got divorced"

Your last example is subtly different, because it's talking about something happening in both time periods. The implied meaning is:

  • "I was dissembling even before you were born"

Which means something like:

  • "I started dissembling before you were born; and I continued dissembling after you were born"
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  • "They had been married for 10 years; and then they got divorced" - "They had been married for 10 years before they got divorced"
    – Let
    Commented Dec 19, 2020 at 21:10
  • Does this example look good to you?
    – Let
    Commented Dec 19, 2020 at 21:30
  • 1
    @Rusletov Yes, I think that would also be acceptable. It doesn't really relate to the "before" or "and then", though, just the subtle difference between "were" and "had been".
    – IMSoP
    Commented Dec 19, 2020 at 21:31
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When and before .

When (meaning in Oxford dictionary) = used for talking about the time at which something happens or happened.

before = earlier than the time that. So using 'before' in place of 'when' gives a clear sense of sequence - which event occurred prior to which event.

Examples to show 'when' can mean before, after or at the same time.

When did the train arrive ?

  1. The train had arrived when we reached the station. (before)
  2. We had reached the station when the train arrived. (after)
  3. Hardly had/did we reached/ reach the station, when the train arrived. (as soon as, no sooner than)

"The train arrived when we reached the station."

The sequence of events is not clear without the past perfect tense. A very important use of the Past Perfect Tense is that it is used to clarify which event happened earlier when two actions were completed in the past. Please note that we can write the sentences in simple past tense by using 'before' and 'after'.

When do we use the Past perfect continuous tense?

The following time expressions are used in the Past perfect continuous tense.

  1. since with a specific hour, month, year or a period in the past > since 2020/ since Monday
  2. for with a number of hours, days, months or years > for twenty years
  3. already between had and the verb > had already been flying.
  4. before, when and by the time before the past simple > when he saw the __

When can we not use the Past perfect continuous tense.

In sentence 1 and 2, past perfect continuous tense is used because of 'before' as well as the time expressions 'for 3 months' and 'for 10 minutes'.

Your sentences can be or cannot be converted because of the following reasons:-

  1. Marilyn was a factory worker before she was a model.

This sentence cannot be converted to past continuous because it contains only a be verb, also known as a stative verb. Adding the main verb working -

Marilyn was working as a factory worker before she became a model.

Marilyn had been working as a factory worker for two years before she became a model.

2. They were married for 10 years before they got divorced

Marry is a stative verb, so this sentence cannot be changed to continuous form.

  1. I was dissembling before you were born

This sentence means I continued dissembling even after you were born

If you write in the past perfect continuous (as below). It means I stopped dissembling after you were born.

I had been dissembling before you were born.

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