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?

5 Answers 5


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。



  • @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.
    – sma
    Commented Feb 26, 2012 at 19:24
  • 之前 "earlier", while 以前 "used to". So can one say that you can't use 以前 in sentenses refering to future and must use it only refreing to past? P.S. I know there is no tense in chinese. But 之前 can be used any where (in past or in future)?
    – coobit
    Commented Mar 7, 2017 at 7:30
  • You know I'm talking about the same phenomenon as with 又 and 再 you can't use 再 refering to past, but can use 又.
    – coobit
    Commented Mar 7, 2017 at 7:34

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.

  • 我三岁以前只能喝牛奶 is correct. But your second example is right on target!
    – gonnastop
    Commented Apr 4, 2012 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
    Commented Feb 22, 2014 at 2:38





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”.

  • 关于"“之前”是介词,“以前”是副词也是介词。"cf。"外国人实用汉语语法"第二章|词类|第一节| 名词 |(三)关于方位词。Nouns of locality.1。方位词是表示方向或位置的 名词 ,方位词有单音节的、双音节的两种。举例如下:单音节:上、下、前、后、左、右、里、外、中、内、同、旁、东、南、西、北。双音节|后面加"边"例如:上边、。。。|后面加"面"例如:上面、。。。|前面加"以"例如:以上、。。。|前面加"之"例如:之前、。。。|其他例如:上下、。。。regarding 以前 and 之前 also note"前、之前"还可以表示处所,"以前"不能表示处所。"之前"前边的词语不能是单音节的,
    – user6065
    Commented Mar 7, 2017 at 2:52

从前 (cónɡqián) always refers to a time far in the past, while 以前 (yǐqián) is closer to the present.

以前 (yǐqián) can be used after time words while 从前 (cónɡqián) cannot.


Tiānliàng yǐqián, wǒ bìxū qǐchuáng.

天亮 以前,我 必须 起床。

Before dawn, I must get up.

Tā shísuì yǐqián zhù zài Běijīng.

他 十岁 以前 住 在 北京

Before he was ten years old, he lived in Beijing.

以前 (yǐqián) refers generally to a time before now, and it can be placed at the beginning or the middle of a sentence.


Yǐqián, wǒ zài xiǎoxué jiāoshū.

以前, 我 在 小学 教书。

I used to teach at primary school.

从前 (cónɡqián) is always used at the very beginning of a story. It is similar to the English phrase "a long time ago," or “once upon a time.”


Cóngqián, sēnlín lǐ zhùzhe yíwèi lièrén.

从前, 森林 里 住着 一位 猎人。

A long time ago, there lived a hunter in the forest.

Source from eChineselearning.com


As a native speaker,I think “之前” and “以前” is similar ,but “以前” is more common,more general。 “之前” used a little,especially in oral talking。

just some cases:

english used as Before or ago,and usually used to start a sentence

eg:1、很久以前,有一座山 long time ago,there is a mountion over there.

2、以前,我有一个洋娃娃 I used to have a doll。


usually used behind some preposition or sentence or subject


1.I hope we can finish this before the deadline

in conclusion:


1.usually the present or a certain period of time earlier

2.Refers to the past




in front of a time or place. Generally used in time



0、chinese wiki grammar


2、之前 英文


4、百度百科 之前

5、百度百科 以前

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.