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I am going on holidays in two days for two weeks, but before going I would like to see my friend: shall I say

It would be nice to see you before I leave.

It would be nice to see you before I left.

I think the second one is better, as it is not a real situation but a wish.

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    The second one probably sounds better to your ear because it is using the default backshift version, where it is using the past-tense verb "left". – F.E. Jul 24 '15 at 8:55
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    @CopperKettle Yes, for the matrix clause verb "would" is a past-tense, and that makes backshift available. Usually, the backshift version ("left") would be used here. Though, there's nothing wrong with the first version. Either version is fine. The first version (the non-backshift) might be considered to be slightly marked, and so, would probably be used in a situation where a superior is requesting a junior to be available for a, er, chat before the superior leaves. – F.E. Jul 24 '15 at 9:08
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    @CopperKettle Reported speech is a subset of backshift. To make backshift available for a subordinate clause, there's basically two conditions, and at least one of those two has to be fulfilled: 1. a superordinate clause is headed by a past-tense verb, 2. the situation involves the past. If one or both are fulfilled, then backshift is available and it is usually the default. – F.E. Jul 24 '15 at 9:13
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    Left and leave both sound fine to me, personally. I find it interesting that some speakers feel so strongly about option #2 sounding ungrammatical. – snailcar Jul 27 '15 at 7:44
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    @snailboat - It would be nice to see your answer to this question posted before the bounty period expired. Or is it "expires"? (0: – CowperKettle Jul 27 '15 at 9:03
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+300

The OP believes that It would be nice to see you before I left expresses a wish and not a real situation, and this is why the past tense is better in the subordinate clause.

It is certainly true that wishes that a present situation were different are commonly expressed in the past tense:

I wish I had more money.

It is also true that the past tense is typically used in the subordinate clauses of similar (so-called) conditional 2 sentences to express an unreal (counterfactual) situation:

It would be nice if I had more money.

The past tense is also used in conditional 2 sentences to convey the speaker's belief in the remoteness of the possibility of something happening:

It would be nice if I finally won some money on the lottery.

Further, the past tense is common (but far from mandatory) in the subordinate clauses of reported statements:

She said that it would be nice to see you before you left.

But none of the above contexts fits the OP's example. The It would be nice to see you clause in this context does not mandate the past tense of the verb in the subordinate clause.

The leaving is prearranged, hence the present tense is used. There is nothing unreal or counterfactual or reported about the leaving. The present tense is the usual tense for scheduled events: cf. My plane leaves at 8.45 tomorrow evening. So, my clear preference in this context is for:

It would be nice to see you before I leave.

Two further points. Firstly, the main clause can be expanded to: It would be nice if I could see you .. , in which case the past tense (could) is used to express a wish, remote possibility or counterfactual. But this still has no influence of the tense in the before I leave clause.

Secondly, the past tense is often used to express deference or politeness. For example:

Excuse me, I wanted to see the manager. Is she free?

So, It would be nice to see you before I left is conceivable in the context of, for example, a student requesting an appointment with a professor.


Addendum

The list below shows the Google results for various "It would be [ nice / good / great ] to [verb] ... before I ... " constructions. They show that the present tense is much more usual in the before clauses of such constructions.

  • It would be nice / good / great to see you before I leave [14]
  • It would be nice / good / great to see you before I left [0]


  • It would be nice / good / great to see you before I go [10]
  • It would be nice / good / great to see you before I went [1]


  • It would be nice / good / great to know before I leave [4]
  • It would be nice / good / great to know before I left [1]


  • It would be nice / good / great to know before I go [40]
  • It would be nice / good / great to know before I went [0]
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    "It would be nice to see you before you left" alone sounds weird, but with preceding context that fleshes things out a bit better, it can sound OK. "I will be gone for two weeks on vacation. It would be nice to see you before I left." That sounds fine. – LawrenceC Jul 27 '15 at 14:20
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    @ultrasawblade. Yes, the past tense does not sound unnatural in the context you mention. The problem on this site is that we are often asked, as here, to comment on the acceptability of decontextualised sentences without any knowledge of the speaker's communicative intent. As Lewis in The English Verb (p83) states: " ... any attempt to describe certain grammatical choices objectively is doomed to failure. Account needs to be taken of the centrality of the speaker." – Shoe Jul 28 '15 at 6:46
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    @ultrasawblade - I wonder why would the addition of "I will be gone for two weeks on vacation" make "before I left" more acceptable. – CowperKettle Jul 28 '15 at 19:10
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I believe both are fine.

The first one is definitely much more natural because most people don't want to use past tense for something that has not happened yet.

But the second one is not wrong because in English past tense is used for polite expressions. Here's an article from British Council that might convince you: http://learnenglish.britishcouncil.org/en/english-grammar/verbs/past-tense

And for more examples: http://blog.harwardcommunications.com/2014/07/30/how-to-be-polite/

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The phrase "would be" is not past tense in that sentence, rather, it is a conditional expressing contingency or possibility. For that reason, the first sentence is correct:

It would be nice to see you before I leave.

This sounds the most natural.

References here:

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In my view only the first sentence makes sense. The speaker has not left yet, so a past-tense is confusing. This is no case for backshift.

Added: The sentence has the same meaning as "I would like to see you before I leave".

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I post this as an answer because long comments are usually discouraged in SE.

I've asked a similar question Tense simplification in the present or future irrealis conditionals, which I think could be of some help.

As StoneyB correctly puts it, those past forms mark all the sentences as irrealis. That's also why you prefer your second example.

However, let's take a closer look.

Compare:

It would be nice to see you before I left.

with the PEU examples:

If I had lots of money, I would give some to anybody who asked for it.

Would you follow me wherever I went?

You can only give money to someone after being asked for it.

You can only follow me after knowing where I'm heading.

But I will not be able to see you after I leave. Note that the departure has been predetermined, and it's only the meeting that is hypothetical.

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