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Yesterday I came across an utterance that has been bugging me ever since.

I've been listening to ArtistX before he collabed with the GroupX, and I've listened to the GroupX before I listened to ArtistX.

I wouldn't give it any though if it hadn't been written by a native, and most apparently it was. But I doubt its grammatical correctness. I understand what the author wanted to convey, but he did that in a fashion that strikes me as wrong for some reason. As for me, he should have used the past perfect tense, as in:

I'd been listening to ArtistX before he collabed with the GroupX.

But I've done my research and came out with the results that surprised me. There are quite a few examples of similar sentences.

I've been listening to K-Pop before it became mainsteam.

And while in this sentence I get the need for use of the present perfect, as it's directly connected to the present, the former example seems somewhat different. Still, even if both are correct, I'd use "since before..." in them for the sake of making them more clear - would that be necessary though?

EDIT: The longer I think about it the less I consider the original sentence to be wrong. I can see it's connection to the present fact; the author STILL listenes to them, and has been doing it since before their collaboration. I guess what originally made this utterance weird for me was the lack of "since" and its second part:

and I've listened to the GroupX before I listened to ArtistX

I feel like something's not right about tenses in there. But I'm still curious to see your take on the entire case; perhaps my prior doubts were valid?

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The original utterance

In the YouTube comment that inspired this:

ive been listening to bones before he collabed with the klan and ive listened to the klan before i listened to bones and i know that the klan didnt use vhs style videos until they meet or where in contact with bones? lol

the point is to establish the speaker's authority for an earlier claim about "bones".

There are two ways to understand the first part: (1) "bones before he collabed with the klan" is a noun phrase meaning "the music that bones made before he collaborated with the klan", and the speaker has been listening to it recently. (2) The speaker means "When I started listening (extensively) to bones (perhaps years ago), bones hadn't yet collaborated with the klan". If (2), the speaker is using the perfect tense to emphasize that his total experience includes that long-ago experience, to establish his credibility for saying that bones, not the klan, originated VHS-style videos. If the speaker intended meaning (2), normally one would include the word "since": "ive been listening to bones since before he collabed with the klan". Now that I know the whole context, I think (2) is the intended meaning, and the speaker omitted "since" out of carelessness.

Now for the second part. "ive listened to the klan before i listened to bones" reflects the conflicts described (confusingly) in my other answer: the speaker is using the present perfect in order to say "my accumulated experience includes such-and-such, so I know what I'm talking about", but the present perfect means "continuing up to the present time", which conflicts with "before i listened to bones" (the endpoint of the time interval being described). The intended sequence of events is: "I listened (extensively) to the klan before the bones-klan collaboration started, and then I started listening to bones, and I continued listening when they started collaborating, and the klan only started making VHS-style videos after they started collaborating with bones".

Probably the best way to understand the second part is to treat "listened to the klan before i listened to bones" as a huge verb which is the object of "ive". The speaker means "listening to the klan before I listened to bones is in my experience, so I know which one was first to make VHS-style videos".

A comparison

It might help to look closely at the usage of the present perfect to mean "my accumulated experience includes". The speaker's grammar works by analogy with this kind of statement:

I've been making mashed potatoes since before you were born, so don't you tell me how much milk to add!

The present perfect means "within the span of time up to the present" and the continuous aspect means "without a break", so this sentence means (without using the present perfect):

I started making mashed potatoes before you were born, and I continued making mashed potatoes all these decades up until now without a break, therefore my total experience making mashed potatoes far exceeds yours, therefore I have more authority than you do about how much milk to add.

There are more actions and time intervals in what the person on YouTube was talking about, though, leading to the greater complexity and apparent clash of tenses.

  • Thanks, once again, for your in-depth answer! It wasn't so hard after all, but apparently the speaker's carelessness led me to the utter confusion; had he been at least using commas, I wouldn't have had this many problems. One last question: using present perfect continuous in the second part would have the same meaning, but with more emphasis on the continuity of that action, right? And, apparently, my other example, the one regarding K-Pop, was the exact same case of using spoken English in writing, where one theoretically should have included "since" clause, right? – Bebop B. Jan 29 '15 at 23:13
  • Though it still bugs me: how is the first part different from the second? Couldn't I just get away with the good ol' "since" clause, as in the former? – Bebop B. Jan 29 '15 at 23:34
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I have been listening to ArtistX since before he collaborated with the GroupX.

The present perfect continuous means "from a point in the past up to now" and therefore the sentence requires a starting point: since before. Alone, by itself, before is not a point-in-time but a period of time stretching back from a terminus into the past.

I had been listening to ArtistX before his collaboration with GroupX.

The past perfect continuous means "during a period in the past, stretching forward in time to a specified terminus in the past". Here that terminus is "his collaboration with GroupX". Your original question expressed that terminus using the simple past, which is OK: "before he collaborated" (simple past = an event that occurred in the past). One could also say "before he began collaborating".

  • I think this analysis of the sentence with since added is exactly right, but without since, the phrase is still grammatically correct but the meaning is different: the first before shifts from referring to the speaker's listening to ArtistX's music-making. (I never would have noticed this phenomenon if it hadn't been for this question and your answer!) – Ben Kovitz Jan 28 '15 at 18:02
  • @Ben Kovitz: I think I know what you mean: Recently, I've been listening to ArtistX's music from the period that predates his collaboration with GroupX. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Jan 29 '15 at 23:21
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The first part

It's grammatically correct. Here's what the first part means, with perfect tenses removed:

Recently, I was listening to the music that ArtistX made before he collaborated with GroupX.

That is, have been listening refers to the recent behavior of the speaker. ArtistX before he collaborated with GroupX is a noun phrase referring to music made by ArtistX, possibly many years ago. The present perfect refers to the speaker's listening, not to when the music was made. Probably what's confusing is that ArtistX is being used to mean not ArtistX, but music made by ArtistX.

The second part

The second part means:

My experience includes listening to the music made by GroupX, and I had that experience before I listened to music made by ArtistX.

This is one of those times when English grammar causes conflicts which are hard to resolve in any satisfactory way. (Here's another.)

By choosing the present perfect, the speaker means to point out that his past experience is relevant to his present claim in the first part of the sentence. That is, the speaker's having listened to GroupX before having listened to ArtistX implies something important about the speaker's ability to appreciate or recognize something about the music made by these people at different times. Since the claim is made in the present, the speaker wants the present tense. Since what's being described is something included in an accumulation of experience, the speaker wants to use the perfect aspect.

It goes just a little weird, though, at before I listened to ArtistX. Mixing the present perfect with the simple past here sounds contradictory, although I think it's technically okay. The reason for the apparent contradiction is that "I have listened to" refers to the speaker's music-listening up to the present time, but "before I listened to ArtistX" excludes all time after the speaker started listening to ArtistX. The meaning is clear enough, but the grammar is sending incompatible signals to the listener.

These are also not fully satisfactory:

(1) I've been listening to ArtistX before he collaborated with GroupX, and I had listened to GroupX before I listened to ArtistX.

(2) I've been listening to ArtistX before he collaborated with GroupX, and I had listened to GroupX before I had listened to ArtistX.

(3) I've been listening to ArtistX before he collaborated with GroupX, and I listened to GroupX before I listened to ArtistX.

The problem with (1) and (2) is that the speaker wants to refer to all experience up to now, in order to be relevant to the recent music-listening described in the first part of the sentence. The past perfect agrees with "before I listened to", but not with "I've been listening".

(3) fails to link the speaker's early experience listening to GroupX with the present, but it's probably the best way to resolve all these conflicting pressures. "I listened to" refers to time "before I listened to ArtistX", which is right, and sends no mixed signals. "I listened to" is compatible with "I've been listening to" at the beginning; it just doesn't emphasize what the speaker wants to emphasize.

There are more possibilities, but I think really is no fully satisfactory way to join all these thoughts into one nice sentence in English. Something has to get sacrificed. And the easiest thing to sacrifice is the "accumulation up to the present" in "I've listened to GroupX". The listener will understand it even if the grammar doesn't explicitly point it out.

  • The problem with this sentence is that, judging by the context, the speaker wanted to convey that he has been listening to ArtistX since before he collaborated with GroupX, and he has been listening to GroupX even before he listened to ArtistX. That's how I feel about it, but I'd be grateful if you could check it by yourself. youtu.be/hMRaLLTosp4 - it's in the responses to evan whitewood's comment. And I've got to say, your explanation got me a little confused; I feel like the author should have written two separate sentences, because what he did was making it all extremely vague. – Bebop B. Jan 29 '15 at 20:01
  • @BebopB. I just added a new section directly addressing the original comment. Hopefully that's clearer. Of course, the more one tries to spell these subtle things out explicitly, the more complicated and confusing they get. – Ben Kovitz Jan 29 '15 at 21:05
  • @BebopB. I just moved the new stuff to a separate answer. I think each answer can be understood on its own (well, with some confusion because explaining the perfect aspect is always difficult). – Ben Kovitz Jan 29 '15 at 21:18

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