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What's the difference between "by the time" and "before"?

Let's set some examples:

"By the time I got home, he had died."

This translates to "At the time that or Before the time that I got home, he died." This means that the person either died right at the time the person got home, or some time before. However, I asked a few other people, and they say that it just means that the person died BEFORE he got home, and can not be "at", just "before"... why? I'm not sure what to think about the definition, so if anyone could provide clearance, that would be awesome...


By the time I got back to school, the bell had rung.

This translates to "at the time or before the time that I got back to school, the bell had rung." However, it is only understood to be "before the time", and people disregard the "at". Why?

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Julian Ng-Thow-Hing it is only understood to be "before the time", and people disregard the "at". Why?

It's purely convention. That is, it's customary to interpret "by the time" that way. It's normal (are useful) to think of it as a race between two processes, actions, or events. Only one can win the race. There can't be a tied score. Emotion: smile

By the time I get back from shopping, my favorite TV show will have started becomes a race between returning from shopping and the beginning of the TV show. The sentence says that the show will win this race.

CJ

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By the time I got back to school, the bell had rung.

This translates to "at the time or before the time that I got back to school, the bell had rung." Then the translation process is incorrect.

Clive

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Comments  

So in every case, "at" is never, well, thought of, only "before"?

So in these scenarios:

"He died by the time I got to the house."

This NEVER means "He died when or before the time I got to the house." <--- this sentence doesn't really make sense, nor does it ever mean "He died when I got to the house." This always means "He died before the time I got to the house."?


"I'll finish my errand by the time you finish your video game."

This NEVER means "I'll run 5 laps at or before the time you finish that cookie?" What if the person finishes at exactly the same time? Is the person, in fact, wrong?


is "by the time" only meant for "before" when referring to past events, or in all events?

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Julian Ng-Thow-Hing"He died by the time I got to the house." This NEVER means "He died when or before the time I got to the house."

I've been told that we should never say "never", but I can't think of any cases that contradict the claim that this never means "when" or "at the time".

Julian Ng-Thow-HingWhat if the person finishes at exactly the same time?

Then his prediction was wrong. He made a guess that turned out to be wrong.

Julian Ng-Thow-HingIs "by the time" only meant for "before" when referring to past events, or in all events?

All events.

CJ

Ok. I checked the definitions of "by" in multiple dictionaries, and one of them were "at or before"/"no later than".

So, according to that definition, "He died by the time I got to the house." would mean "No later than the time I got to the house, he died." Doesn't this imply "at or before"? I know you said it means before, but aren't these dictionaries credible?

Hi Clive, how is the translation process incorrect? I went by this forums post where I read the usage of "by the time".

https://ell.stackexchange.com/questions/114908/what-time-does-by-the-time-mean

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Julian Ng-Thow-Hing

Ok. I checked the definitions of "by" in multiple dictionaries, and one of them were "at or before"/"no later than".

So, according to that definition, "He died by the time I got to the house." would mean "No later than the time I got to the house, he died." Doesn't this imply "at or before"?

Yes. That definition of 'by' implies 'at or before'.

Julian Ng-Thow-HingI know you said it means before, but aren't these dictionaries credible?

Regardless of any dictionary definition, it would be very rare for "by the time" to suggest in any practical situation that two things might happen at exactly the same time. And nothing of great consequence would happen if two events happened at exactly the same time anyway. If you say I'll finish eating this cookie by the time you finish drinking your milk, and then both events end at the same time, nothing of significance is going to happen. It's not like this is an olympic event timed with a stopwatch. Nobody is going to lose the gold medal over it.

In any case, the way that an expression is actually used in speech and writing is always a more reliable way of knowing how to use it than the way it is described in a dictionary.

CJ

Julian Ng-Thow-Hing

Ok. I checked the definitions of "by" in multiple dictionaries, and one of them were "at or before"/"no later than".

So, according to that definition, "He died by the time I got to the house." would mean "No later than the time I got to the house, he died." Doesn't this imply "at or before"? I know you said it means before, but aren't these dictionaries credible?

Yes. According to that definition 'by the time' means 'before or at' the given time. Nevertheless, in practical terms the two processes or events almost never really occur at the same time, so as I see it, the possibility of a rare simultaneity is only of theoretical interest.

CJ

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