Narrative before in English

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    This paper examines the so-called narrative use of before-clauses in English, as in They had hardly heard her explanation before Jack burst out crying. In such sentences the main situation is narrated by the before-clause, while the main clause offers contextual temporal specification of this situation. The attempt to cope with the descriptive challenge posed by this rather special balance of narrative impact between the two clauses takes its point of departure in Huddleston and Pullum’s (2002:1104) recognition of before as a “comparative governor” and in my findings in connection with a recent study on narrative when-clauses (Bache 2016). Narrative before-clauses are superficially very similar to temporal before-clauses (as in They heard her explanation before Jack called her parents), where the main situation is expressed by the main clause and the before-clause provides contextual temporal specification. However, narrative before-clauses are found to be not only pragmatically but also formally distinct from temporal before-clauses and therefore must be accommodated in our more general grammatical description of before. The basic approach to before as a comparative element goes some of the way to explain the special textual balance in narrative before-constructions, but it must be supplemented with the notion of “functional superordination” resulting from a special pattern of assertiveness, textual cohesion, and “main clause phenomena.” In the analysis of more than 7000 examples of before, the temporal-narrative distinction is found to be too crude. A new typology of constructions is therefore proposed which is sensitive to both formal criteria and textual strategies.
    Original languageEnglish
    JournalJournal of English Linguistics
    Issue number1
    Pages (from-to)23-51
    Publication statusPublished - 2018


    • before
    • cohesion
    • comparative governor
    • cum inversum
    • functional superordination
    • narrative clause
    • syntactic subordination
    • temporal conjunction
    • text strategies


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