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I finished school the year before last.

I finished school before last year.

Is there any difference between these phrases?

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    Please give your question an informative title that describes it, so people can find it. (Also, the idiom is that something makes my head spin.) – stangdon Feb 4 '15 at 15:06
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There is a difference. It is now 2015 ...

  • Year before last designates a specific year. If you say I finished school the year before last we understand that you finished school during the year which preceded last year: sometime in 2013.

  • Before last year designates an indefinite timespan which ended at the beginning of last year. If you say I finished school before last year we understand that you finished school at some unspecified time before last year. It might have been 2013, it might have been 2012, it might have been 1990 or 1980 or 1970 or 1960 ...

By the way, in US English you need not say the year before last—this is fine:

I finished school year before last.

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    Just as a note- I always say the year before last, but in this case I might say, "I finished school a year ago." – Jim Feb 4 '15 at 14:43
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    As an American, I have never seen someone drop the in this kind of construction, and your sentence looks really awkward and, well, wrong to me. That might be a more narrow regional thing than the US in general. I'm more specifically from the Northeast, New York City, but I've lived in California (near Los Angeles) and DC and have not heard that in those places, either. – KRyan Feb 4 '15 at 18:18
  • When you say "I finished school year before last," do you pause between school and year? That's the only way I can hear dropping the the without it sounding wrong (i.e., with a pause indicating deliberate elision of the correct word, as a way of speaking informally). – SevenSidedDie Feb 4 '15 at 19:05
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    Another American here, I agree with the previous comments about not dropping the in your sentence. It looks and sounds incorrect to me. – Michael McGriff Feb 4 '15 at 19:10
  • @KRyan It's hard to search for the absence of the article, but this Google Ngram suggests that only about two thirds of printed instances had the. Nor is this new; Google Books has instances going back to the 1870s in conversational contexts (e.g. transcripts of Congressional hearings). And I've heard it all my life, in the south and midwest. – StoneyB on hiatus Feb 5 '15 at 3:00

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