Student Stumper 52: “Earlier” vs. “Before”

QUESTION: What’s the difference between “earlier” and “before”? Is there any difference between “I saw him before” and “I saw him earlier”?

ANSWER: There can be overlap in meaning, but first let’s find the more obvious differences.

First, we can use “before” as a conjunction to form an adverb clause of time. It’s in direct contrast to “after.”
Before you hit send, proofread your email. (Send your email only after you proofread it.)
I’ll text you before I leave. (I’ll leave right after I text you.)
This use of “before” helps us set up a sequence of events.

Second, “before” as a preposition also allows us to establish a sequence.
The mother asked the children to wash their hands before dinner.
Before any exam, you should become familiar with the test format.

Next, let’s recall that “earlier” is a comparative adjective.
The receptionist offered me two different times, and I chose the earlier one.
The manager pointed out that earlier action could have prevented the problem.
Here “earlier” is the opposite of “later.”

The overlap in use and meaning occurs when “earlier” and “later” function as adverbs.
I saw him before.
I saw him earlier.
Both are grammatically correct. They might both answer the question, “Where’s Jacob?” However, I’d be inclined to use “earlier” because this adverb seems to be a more natural fit for a specific day and the sequence of events within that day.
Isn’t Jacob joining us for lunch? – I’m not sure. I saw him earlier, but he said he might have to work through his lunch break.
“Earlier” can mean “earlier in the day.”

I’d argue that “before” more naturally refers to the general past, meaning “before now” or “before that time.”
I’ve never made a speech before. I wouldn’t know what to do.
How come you’re eating with your left hand? You’ve never done that before.
Excuse me. Have we met before?
Had you ever faced that kind of problem before? – Up to that point, no. Never.

Now consider this pair:
I want everything to be as it was before.
I want everything to be as it was earlier.

Is there a difference?

My gut tells me that “before” can refer to a large time period before now. For example, Lisa is upset that her boyfriend no longer calls or texts just to say hi. He’s far less attentive and affectionate. She complains, “I want everything to be as it was before. I like when he was sweet and caring.” It was an earlier time in their relationship that likely spanned weeks if not months. “Earlier” isn’t as good a fit for this general reference to the past.

In contrast, Derek set the table for the dinner guests, but then his partner Jay changed it. Derek isn’t happy because everything was just perfect, and now it’s not. I’d argue Derek could say, “I want everything to be as it was before” or “I want everything to be as it was earlier.” Either adverb could work. “Before” means “before now.” “Earlier” refers to a time earlier in the day.

That reference to an earlier point within an event or a day allows for either adverb:
As I mentioned earlier, we’ll be taking questions at the end of the presentation.
As I mentioned before, we’ll be taking questions at the end of the presentation.

If “earlier” is in direct contrast to “later,” however, then it’s the only choice.
Many Americans move out of their parents’ home after college, some even earlier.
A lot of people get gray hair in their forties, some earlier than others.
Also, we can use various qualifiers with “earlier”:
Can you arrive a little earlier?
We landed much earlier than expected.

In contrast, I can think of no downtoners and only one intensifier for the adverb “before”: long before. But, to be honest, it’s easier to find examples of “long before” as a preposition, not an adverb:
Dinosaurs lived long before humans.
(See the search results for “long before” on Ludwig.guru.)

Either adverb can help us establish a timeline, but they appear in different structures:

 – Sonya arrived on April 1. Her sister arrived one week earlier.*
[one week earlier, two weeks earlier, etc.]
*”One week before” is possible, but likely less used. (See results of “one week earlier” vs. “one week before” on Ludwig.guru. “One week before” is preferred in a prepositional phrase or adverb clause.)

– Sonya arrived on April 1. Her sister arrived the week before.
[the week before, the day before, etc.]

– Sonya arrived on the evening of April 1. Her sister arrived earlier in the day.
– Sonya arrived on Friday. Her sister arrived earlier in the the week.
[earlier in the day, earlier in the week, etc.]

In short, “earlier” and “before” can overlap in meaning as adverbs. However, there’s a possible difference in the time frame. “Before” is likely preferred for the general past. “Earlier” is a natural fit for a single day, week, month, or year. Furthermore, there are certain structures that are restricted to one of the two adverbs, as seen with qualifiers.

Can you note any other differences? Feel free to add an insight.

Featured photo by geralt. Retrieved from https://pixabay.com/illustrations/time-clock-watches-wave-time-of-2132452/.

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