以前 (yǐqián) and 以后 (yǐhòu) in Chinese grammar: before and after, past and future

Most learners of Chinese encounter the terms 以前 and 以后 fairly early on in their studies. They’re probably the easiest way to sequence events in time in Chinese, but getting them right still takes some effort and practice. Here’s a heads-up on using these words correctly.

Before and after

With an event or action

Let’s first look at using 以前 and 以后 to talk about events happening before or after other things. The basic structure is the same for 以前 and 以后:

[event] 以后,[something happens]

We’ve deliberately kept the terms simple here. The structure above is used to say that something happens after that event. The same structure can be used to talk about past or future events - it simply sequences the events in time. You can swap 以后 (after) for 以前 (before) - the structure is the same.

Have a look at some example sentences for this pattern with 以前 and 以后:

吃饭以前,我们先祈祷。

Chīfàn yǐqián, wǒmen xiān qídǎo.

Before eating, we pray.

去加拿大以前,他在英国教书。

Qù Jiānádà yǐqián, tā zài Yīngguó jiāoshū.

Before he went to Canada, he taught in the UK.

到办公室以前,我需要打个电话。

Dào bàngōngshì yǐqián, wǒ xūyào dǎ gè diànhuà.

Before I get to the office, I need to make a phone call.

吃饭以后,我要看书。

Chīfàn yǐhòu, wǒ yào kànshū.

After I've eaten, I'm going to read.

下班以后,我要学习中文。

Xiàbān yǐhòu, wǒ yào xuéxí zhōngwén.

After finishing work, I'm going to study Chinese.

二战以后,世界就不一样了。

èrzhàn yǐhòu, shìjiè jiù bù yīyàng le.

After the Second World War, the world was different.

吃了早餐以后,我要去健身房。

Chīle zǎocān yǐhòu, wǒ yào qù jiànshēnfáng.

After eating breakfast, I'm going to go to the gym.

遇到了她以后,我的生活就不一样了。

Yù dàole tā yǐhòu, wǒ de shēnghuó jiù bù yīyàngle.

After I met her, my life was different.

Notice how the basic structure is the same for 以前 and 以后, and how versatile this pattern is. You can put pretty any event or action in the first part, and use that to sequence the other event in relation to it.

With an amount of time

You can also use this pattern to talk about things happening before or after a specific amount of time. The structure is the same:

[amount of time] 以后,[something happens]

Again, you can swap 以后 (after) for 以前 (before). This pattern works the same way as the one above. Have a look at some examples:

三天以前,我在南京。

Sān tiān yǐqián, wǒ zài Nánjīng.

Three days ago, I was in Nanjing.

我们晚上八点以前就会到。

Wǒmen wǎnshàng bā diǎn yǐqián jiù huì dào.

We'll arrive before 8pm.

很久以前,在一个很遥远的恒星系……

Hěnjiǔ yǐqián, zài yīgè hěn yáoyuǎn de héngxīng xì……

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away...

十分钟以后,他就走了。

Shí fēnzhōng yǐhòu, tā jiù zǒule.

He left ten minutes later.

我一个星期以后会回来。

Wǒ yīgè xīngqí yǐhòu huì huílái.

I will come back in one week.

五年以后,我会有自己的房子。

Wǔ nián yǐhòu, wǒ huì yǒu zìjǐ de fángzi.

In five years I will have my own house.

Notice how can fit this pattern into different parts of the sentence. We’ve avoided giving any rigid sentence structures for this pattern, as it’s usually better to focus on examples and getting lots of practice.

Amount of time before or after an event

You can also combine the two patterns described above, to talk about things happening a certain amount of time before or after an event. The structure for this is:

[event] [amount of time] 以后,[something happens]

Have a look at some examples (we’ve included some trickier ones to keep you on your toes):

米饭煮好五分钟以前,要开始炒肉。

Mǐfàn zhǔ hǎo wǔ fēnzhōng yǐqián, yào kāishǐ chǎo ròu.

Five minutes before the rice is boiled, you should start frying the meat.

你到这里三天以前,我梦到过你。

Nǐ dào zhèlǐ sān tiān yǐqián, wǒ mèng dàoguò nǐ.

Three days before you got here, I dreamt about you.

哥伦布到美洲几百年以前,维京人已经到过。

Gēlúnbù dào měizhōu jǐ bǎi nián yǐqián, wéi jīng rén yǐjīng dàoguò.

Several hundred years before Columbus got there, the Vikings had already been to the Americas.

吃了这种药15分钟以后就会有效果。

Chīle zhè zhǒng yào 15 fēnzhōng yǐhòu jiù huì yǒu xiàoguǒ.

This medicine takes effect in fifteen minutes.

开始有互联网不久以后,我们的世界就变小了。

Kāishǐ yǒu hùliánwǎng bùjiǔ yǐhòu, wǒmen de shìjiè jiù biàn xiǎole.

Not long after the Internet came along, our world got smaller.

地震发生五天以后,救援队还没到。

Dìzhèn fāshēng wǔ tiān yǐhòu, jiùyuán duì hái méi dào.

Five days after the earthquake, rescue teams still hadn't arrived.

Some of the above sentences might be a little difficult at your current level, but fear not - with more practice they will become easy.

General past and future

Finally, you can use the words 以前 and 以后 to talk about the general past and future, without specifying any points in time. Have a look at some examples:

以前,我不喜欢吃蔬菜。

Yǐqián, wǒ bù xǐhuan chī shūcài.

Before, I didn't like to eat vegetables.

以前,我以为他很害羞。

Yǐqián, wǒ yǐwéi tā hěn hàixiū.

Before, I thought he was very shy.

以前,这个房子没有电。

Yǐqián, zhège fángzi méiyǒu diàn.

In the past, this house didn't have electricity.

以后,我再也没喝过酒。

Yǐhòu, wǒ zài yě méi hēguò jiǔ.

Afterwards, I never drank again.

以后,你不要再迟到了。

Yǐhòu, nǐ bùyào zài chídàole.

Don't be late again in future.

以后,人类会到火星居住。

Yǐhòu, rénlèi huì dào Huǒxīng jūzhù.

In the future, humans will go to live on Mars.

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