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Forget 'Chicken' and 'Egg,' What Comes First With 'After' and 'Before'?

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster: English teacher Lida Baker explains the use of the words "after" and "before."

LIDA BAKER: "I'm going to say a few sentences and I just want you to tell me two things: Is the sentence correct? And if it's correct, which action happened first? Are you ready?"

RS: "Let's go."

LIDA BAKER: "OK, sentence number one: 'After I wash the dog, comma, I'll call my grandmother, period.'"

RS: "That's good."

LIDA BAKER: "So you think it's correct. OK, and which thing happened first: washing the dog or calling the grandmother?"

RS: "Washing the dog."

AA: "Washing the dog."

LIDA BAKER: "That's correct. Let me give you another sentence: 'I'll wash the dog, period. Afterwards, or after that, comma, I'll call my grandmother, period."

RS: "Sounds OK to me."

AA: "Yeah."

RS: "So you'll wash the dog first."

LIDA BAKER: "That's right."

AA: "I think there's a trick question number three coming up here."

LIDA BAKER: "That's -- you know me so well, Avi [laughter]. Here comes number three: 'I'll wash the dog, period. After, comma, I'll call my grandmother, period.'"

RS: "Now that's incorrect."

LIDA BAKER: "Good! But that is the mistake that a lot of people learning English make."

AA: "Why don't you say that again slowly, just so we catch it here."

LIDA BAKER: "I'll wash the dog. After, I'll call my grandmother.'"

RS: "You have no subject in there. After what?"

AA: "What if you said 'After that, I'll call my grandmother'?"

LIDA BAKER: "Exactly!"

RS: "Or 'afterwards' -- "

LIDA BAKER: "That's correct."

RS: "Or 'afterwards,' you can say."

LIDA BAKER: "That's right. So the confusion is that English has two different ways of connecting the actions that we're talking about.

"We have the word 'after,' which in technical terms we can call a subordinator. It's used in what are called complex sentences, which consist of two parts and they have a comma in the middle.'

"But we also have the word 'afterwards' or 'after that' which function in the say way. And what they do is they come at the beginning of a sentence and they have a comma after them."

RS: "And they're transition words."

LIDA BAKER: "They're transition words, right. So English has both of these. But there are some languages that have only one; they only have the word 'after.' So students who are unaware of the fact that English has two different ways of structuring the meaning here get confused and they put -- they overgeneralize and use the word 'after' and they put it in the wrong place.

"Because what they don't understand is that in English -- and this is so counterintuitive, it's exactly the opposite of what you would expect if you were learning this language -- the word 'after' signals the first event."

RS: "It signals the end of the first event."

LIDA BAKER: "Right. You can put it that way as well. But the point is, doesn't it make more sense that the word 'after' --if you put yourself in the position of an English learner, wouldn't it make more sense if the word 'after' signaled the second event?

"Because there's this potential for confusion with the words 'before' and 'after.' And you can alleviate that confusion by avoiding those words and very simply writing 'and then.'

"Now actually we haven't said anything yet about the word 'before.' But it's the same case. If I say, 'Every morning, I take a shower before I eat breakfast,' what happens first?"

RS: "You take the shower."

AA: "Yeah."

LIDA BAKER: "You take the shower. And yet the second event starts with the word 'before.' See how confusing that is?"

AA: "Ohhh."

LIDA BAKER: "Here's how I would teach this: I would give students a set of written sentences containing the words 'before' and 'after.' And I would ask students to write the numbers one and two above the verbs, and identify which action happened first and which action happened second. And at the same time notice where we put the words 'before' and 'after,' so that they can begin to associate the words 'after' and 'before' with the appropriate action. In other words, the first action or the second action. So that's how I would start."

AA: English teacher Lida Baker, in Los Angeles. Her newest book is a listening-speaking text called "Real Talk," published by Pearson/Longman.

RS: And that's Wordmaster for this week. Our e-mail address is and our segments are all posted, at With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.