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I wanted to express in Mandarin:

Three months ago I started yoga classes.

I thought about whether to use 前 or 以前 to express "ago":

三个月以前我开始了上瑜伽课。

Sān gè yuè yǐqián wǒ kāishǐ le shàng yújiā kè.

三个月我开始了上瑜伽课。

Sān gè yuè qián wǒ kāishǐ le shàng yújiā kè.

Is there a difference between both sentences? Is there a preference between 前 or 以前? If that is the case, what are the general rules behind?

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I would say the more important difference is the one between 以前 and 之前。The difference between 以前 and 前 follows from it.

(Bonus 1: to do yoga is better rendered with 练瑜伽)

(Bonus 2: to me, the sentence sounds better with a modal 了, as 开始 semantics inherently convey a change. native speakers might expand on this)

之前 expresses anteriority in time relative to something else. It can be used when describing event sequences in a time different than the present. It can be translated in English with "earlier, prior to".

三个月之前我开始练瑜伽(了)

Three months earlier, I (had) started doing yoga (relative to another given time)

以前 expresses anteriority relative to the present. It can be translated with "ago".

三个月以前我开始练瑜伽(了)

Three months ago, I started doing yoga (relative to the current time)

Though this distinction is quite faint. It's possible to find 之前 used just like 以前, and vice versa.


Now 前 alone could be an abbreviation of either of those, so its actual meaning is dependant on the context. Generally speaking, I would say there is no appreciable difference between 前 and 以前, except maybe that the former appears more frequently in writing.

A quick Google search:

site: xinhua.net "一个月前" yields ~7000 results

site: xinhua.net "一个月以前" yields ~3000 results

This is empirically true also for other combinations. Another example:

site: xinhua.net "一年前" yields ~65k results

site: xinhua.net "一年以前" yields ~3300 results

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  • But isn't the action of "started attending a yoga class" completed?
    – Puco4
    Jul 20 '20 at 20:09
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    in this sentence, the focus tends to be on the change/beginning of something, which is also inherent in the semantics of 开始, so the modal 了 (change) is more appropriate than the aspect 了 (completeness of an action).
    – blackgreen
    Jul 20 '20 at 20:13
  • Ok! So both the aspect 了 and the modal 了 can be omitted? If we included the modal 了, it would just emphasize the change of state?
    – Puco4
    Jul 20 '20 at 20:22
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    I would say the sentence is passable without modal 了 and should be without aspect 了。Also, let me point out that "to do yoga" is 练瑜伽
    – blackgreen
    Jul 20 '20 at 20:28
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I think 以前 can be used as a word on its own and only refers to some unspecified time in the past, whereas 前 needs an accompanying phrase like 几天/几年 and has meanings not always associated with time.

Three months ago I started yoga classes.
我三个月前开始上瑜伽课。
三个月前我开始上瑜伽课。
Not so nice without a time:
*前我开始上瑜伽课。

前几天我碰到你丈夫了。
I ran into your hubby a few days ago.

以前我碰到过你丈夫。
I met your hubby before.

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There isn't any essential difference between your two sentences. 前 or 以前 wouldn't affect the meaning.

However, the position of 了 can be improved. E. g.

三个月以前我开始上了瑜伽课

三个月前我开始上了瑜伽课

or

三个月以前我开始上瑜伽课了

三个月前我开始上瑜伽课了

You can also put 三个月以前 in the middle(after the subject 我):

我三个月以前开始上了瑜伽课。

If you want to be more factual, you can put:

我三个月前开始上的瑜伽课。

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  • What's that 的 doing in your last sentence?
    – Pedroski
    Jul 21 '20 at 1:18
  • @Pedroski I just noticed recently that this use of 的 is not recognized by many people. In my example, you can take it as the 是. .. 的. ... structure with 是 being omitted. like 我是三个月前开始上的瑜伽课。
    – dan
    Jul 21 '20 at 2:29
  • Why is it better to write 了 after 上 instead of after 开始? I thought the action that is completed is "to start [attending class]" but not "attending class", which still is currently happening.
    – Puco4
    Jul 21 '20 at 8:17
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    @Puco4 We take 开始xxx as a whole to mean "to start to do something". E. g. 开始玩皮球。 We don't usually seperate it.
    – dan
    Jul 21 '20 at 9:40
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三个月以前我开始了上瑜伽课

三个月我开始了上瑜伽课

三个月之前我开始了上瑜伽课

these three sentences have the same meaning.

三个月以前我开始了上瑜伽课 => 三个月以前我开始上瑜伽课了 or 三个月以前我开始了瑜伽课 is more fluent.

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