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I'd like to have some way to differentiate between yǐqián (以前) and zhīqián (之前), in order to help with memorising them both. Referring to Modern Mandarin Grammar (Claudia Ross, Routledge 2006), it seems to suggest that the only point of differentiation is that zhīqián is more literary. Is this the only difference? If not, what do I need to know?

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up vote 4 down vote accepted

As a native Chinese speaker, I agree with what you found in the book. Two words are almost identical except that Zhiqian is more literary. But, on a second thought, it seems that zhiqian is similar to "earlier" while yiqian is similar to "used to". For example:

我以前抽烟,但我现在不抽了. "I used to smoke, but I quit now."

我之前刚抽了一支烟. "I just smoked one cigarette earlier."

In its meaning of of "used to", 以前 can be used to start a sentence, while 之前 cannot:

以前我们上学得反复背诵乘法表. "At school, we used to do a lot of multiplication-table drills."

× 之前 我们上学得反复背诵乘法表.


1. 在时间上,比现在,或某一时间(或某一事件)早的时期。如: 三岁以前,我只能喝牛奶。
2. 泛指从前,以往。如:我以前抽烟,但我现在不抽了。


1. 表示在某个时间或处所的前面。如: 他在满17岁之前发表了第一篇小说。
2. 在事情发生的先后次序方面,指一事先于另一事发生。如:吃饭之前要洗手。



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@Dan. I think it's perfectly fine to say " 我三岁以前,我只能喝牛奶". But your 2nd example sounds right. Anyway, I do not think this question itself is a big deal. Under 95% scenarios, people will understand the semantics no matter which word is used. – pegausbupt Feb 26 '12 at 19:24





对:以前,中国骑自行车的人很多。(可以改为“过去,中国骑自行车的人很多。”) 错:之前,中国起自行车的人很多。

对:在出现汽车之前人们骑马。 对:在出现汽车以前人们骑马。(不能改为“在出现汽车过去人们骑马。”)

很遗憾,越来越多的说中文的人把“之前”当作“以前”用。It is very bad more and more Chinese people are using “之前” where they should use “以前”.

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I'm not a native speaker, but it seems to me that in some cases the usage of these two terms is different and not interchangeable.

For example, I think you could say 我三岁之前,我只喝牛奶 (or 只能喝牛奶), to have the meaning "Before I was three", but it would sound a little odd to say 我三岁以前,我只能喝牛奶, wouldn't it?

I think both terms can mean "in the past", but it seems to me that if you are referring to an event that occurred prior to some other event in the past, 之前 sounds better (but for something that occurs before something else in the future, both 之前 and 以前 are OK - for example, 我去欧洲之前,我需要学习法语 or 我去欧洲以前,我需要学习法语 (although personally I still like the sound of 之前 better than 以前 in this sentence too).

Please correct me if I'm wrong.

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我三岁以前只能喝牛奶 is correct. But your second example is right on target! – gonnastop Apr 4 '12 at 16:49
"I think both terms can mean "in the past", but it seems to me that if you are referring to an event that occurred prior to some other event in the past, 之前 sounds better." Someone told me this years ago and it has stuck with me all this time. As far as I can recall, this way of thinking has never lead me astray. – Olle Linge Feb 22 '14 at 2:38

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