I have a question regarding the use of "before" as an adverb. In the following examples, what word or words does "before" modify? As an adverb, it should modify either a verb, an adjective, or another adverb.

a few days before

the night before

The war had ended a month or so before.

I finished college the year before.

In all of these examples, "before" follows a noun. What word or words does "before" modify? The main verb of the sentence?

Also, what is the function of the noun (or noun phrase) within the sentence in the latter two examples?

  • 1
    The sense is "before the time the speaker is referring to". For example The war had ended a month or so before [the events of this story]. Oct 11, 2021 at 10:40

1 Answer 1


The war had ended [a month or so before].

I finished college [the year before].

"Before" isn't a modifier, so it doesn't modify anything. Modern grammar classifies "before", not as an adverb, but as a preposition.

In the above examples, the bracketed elements are PPs (preposition phrases) where the NPs "a month or so" and "the year" modify the preposition "before", the head of the PPs. "Before" is called a stranded preposition here because it has no object or other complement, though context will determine the understood complement.

The function of the PPs is temporal adjunct' in clause structure.

  • Hello. Thank you for your answer. I did reference an older text, but I found that many current online references (for example, merriam-webster.com and oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com) also listed "before" as both an adverb and a preposition.
    – K. Liao
    Oct 12, 2021 at 8:53
  • In those two online references, there were examples of using "before" as an adverb that made sense to me, such as in "I think we've met before.", where "before" modifies the verb "met" and answers the question "when we have met". However, they also included examples such as "the night before" and "the week before", which confused me since I cannot identify what "before" is modifying in those cases (if we do not consider it a preposition).
    – K. Liao
    Oct 12, 2021 at 8:54
  • @K.Liao please notice what BillJ said. He said "it is not a modifier, so it doesn't modify anything". The PP is a temporal adjunct (in some traditional grammar it is an adverbial, probably the same thing as an adjunct). Oct 12, 2021 at 17:11

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