After, Before, When

Key Time Expressions used in Adverb Clauses

Two Faced Model
Before and After. Rich Legg/ Vetta/ Getty Images

The time expressions after, before and when are used to indicate when something happens in the past, present or future. Each is a subordinating conjunction which introduces a dependent clause and can be used at the beginning or in the middle of a sentence.

I went to school after I had finished my homework.
She takes the train when she travels to London.
Mary finished the report before she made the presentation. 

OR

After we have discussed the issue, we can make a decision. 
When we get up, we take a shower. 
Before we left, we visited our friends in Seattle. 

After, before and when introduce a full clause and require a subject and verb. Therefore, the time expressions after, before and when introduce adverb clauses.

After

The action in the main clause occurs after what occurs in the time clause with after. Notice the use of tenses:

Future: What will happen after something occurs.

Time clause: present simple
Main clause: future

We'll discuss the plans after he gives the presentation.
Jack is going to propose to Jane after they have dinner on Friday!

Present: What always happens after something else occurs.

Time clause: present simple
Main clause: present simple

Alison checks her mail after she gets home.
David plays golf after he mows the lawn on Saturdays.

Past: What happened after something (had) occurred.

Time clause: past simple or past perfect
Main clause: past simple

They ordered 100 units after Tom (had) approved the estimate.
Mary purchased a new car after she (had) researched all her options.

Before

The action in the main clause happens before the action described in the time clause with 'before'. Notice the use of tenses:

Future: What will happen before something else occurs in the future.

Time clause: present simple
Main clause: future

Before he completes the report, he will check all the facts.
Jennifer will speak with Jack before she makes a decision.

Present: What happens before something else occurs on a regular basis.

Time clause: present simple
Main clause: present simple

I take a shower before I go to work.
Doug exercises every evening before he eats dinner.

Past: What (had) happened before something else occurred at a point of time in the past.

Time clause: past simple
Main clause: past simple or past perfect

She had already eaten before he arrived for the meeting.
They finished the discussion before he changed his mind.

When

The action in the main clause happens when something else occurs. Notice that 'when' can indicate different times depending on the tenses used. However, 'when' generally indicates that something happens after, as soon as, upon something else occurring. In other words, it happens just after something else occurs. Notice the use of tenses:

Future: What happens when something else occurs in the future.

Time clause: present simple
Main clause: future

We'll go out to lunch when he comes to visit me. (general time)
Francis will give me a call when he gets the confirmation. (after in a general sense - it could be immediately, or later)

Present: What always happens when something else occurs.

Time clause: present simple
Main clause: present simple

We discuss the bookkeeping when she comes every month.
Susan plays golf when he friend Mary is in town.

Past: What happened when something else (had) occurred. The past tense of 'when' can indicate that something happened regularly or one specific time in the past.

Time clause: past simple
Main clause: past simple

She took the train to Pisa when he came to visit her in Italy. (once, or on a regular basis)
They had a great time seeing the sights when they went to New York.

After, When, Before Quiz

Conjugate the verbs in brackets based on the time context in the sentences below.

  1. She _____ (take) the subway when she _____ (go) into town every week.
  2. I _____ (prepare) dinner before my friend _____ (arrive) yesterday evening. 
  1. We _____ (go) out for drinks after we _____ (get) to the hotel next Tuesday.
  2. Before I _____ (answer) his question, he _____ (tell) me his secret.
  3. Bob usually ______ (use) a bilingual dictionary when he _____ (read) a book in German.
  4. When he _____ (arrive) next week, we _____ (play) a round of golf. 
  5. She _____ (order) a hamburger when she ______ (go) to a restaurant with me last week. 
  6. After I _____ (finish) the report, I _____ (hand) in my homework to the teacher tomorrow. 

Answers

  1. takes / goes
  2. prepared , had prepared / arrived
  3. will go / get
  4. answered / told, had told OR answer / will tell
  5. uses / reads
  6. arrives / will play
  7. ordered / went
  8. finish / will hand