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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... Dec 19 '20 at 12:26
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    'Before' doesn't mean 'when', but either word can be used when referring to the situation up to the time that something happened. Dec 19 '20 at 13:06
  • @AndrewTobilko I disagree. The first two make perfect sense. The last three sentences don't.
    – Rusletov
    Dec 19 '20 at 14:41
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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.

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  • If they mean the same, could you cite any grammar resource which confirms it, please? I haven't found any, although I've browsed quite a few grammar books.
    – Rusletov
    Dec 19 '20 at 14:48
  • 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
    Dec 20 '20 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"
    – Rusletov
    Dec 19 '20 at 21:10
  • Does this example look good to you?
    – Rusletov
    Dec 19 '20 at 21:30
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    @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
    Dec 19 '20 at 21:31

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