There are much too many timing expressions to review in one article, so in this instalment of our series on time we will confine ourselves to the point-relative timing expressions.
Unlike deictic terms, which are dependent on the here and now for context (for example, tomorrow is deictic, since its meaning changes every day), point-relative expressions are relative to some point, usually mentioned or clear from context. You can’t be early or late without something to be early or late to.
We’ll review these in antonymic (opposite meaning) word pairs, making a distinction between translations (which are unreliable at best, misleading at worst) and meaning and usage. It is advisable for the second language student not to get too bogged down in translations but to focus on meaning and usage. Before and after, in particular, are two-faced in translation.
Fyrir...(síðan) / eftir
Prepositions with Time
As prepositions with time, fyrir means in the past and eftir means in the future. They translate as ago and in. Fyrir takes the dative case, while eftir takes the accusative. In this use, fyrir and eftir are technically deictic (relative to the moment of speaking), but we won’t tell if you don’t. It’s best to learn all the fyrir / eftir together.
Fyrir can optionally be accompanied by síðan. This doesn’t change the meaning in any way.
- Jón vaknaði fyrir fimm mínútum síðan(dat) > Jón woke up five minutes ago.
- Guðrún fer í vinnuna eftir fimm mínútur(acc) > Guðrún goes to work in five minutes.
- Anna hætti fyrir klukkutíma/tveimur dögum/viku/þremur mánuðum/ári > Anna quit an hour/three days/a week/a month/a year ago.
- Sigurður ætlar að hætta eftir tvo klukkutíma/þrjá daga/fjórar vikur/fjögur ár > Sigurður is going to quit in two hours/three days/four weeks/four years.
It is hard to use fyrir or eftir to refer to timings covered by definite deictic expressions like á morgun (tomorrow) or í gær (yesterday). Thus, eftir dag/einn dag (in a day/one day) is almost never heard, as it would simply be á morgun.
There are numerous “vaguer” terms we can use with fyrir or eftir. These do not fit with both fyrir and eftir as easily as the exact time, as common usage usually favours one preposition or the other. It may be wise to learn these as expressions: fyrir löngu, eftir smá, eftir augnablik are the most common.
- Kristín útskrifaðist fyrir löngu > Kristín graduated a long time ago.
- Sigríður fer eftir smá > Sigríður is leaving in a bit.
- Ég kem eftir augnablik > I’ll be there in a moment.
Löngu literally translates as a long, and outside of the phrase fyrir löngu it would sound exactly as weird as that English translation. Smá translates as a bit, and is used in other contexts (ég tala smá íslensku, I speak a bit of Icelandic). Augnablik literally translates as eye-blink, and is almost only heard in the phrases eftir augnablik (in a moment) and augnablik (one moment please).
Prepositions with Events
This use of fyrir / eftir is the clearest equivalence to English. As prepositions with events, fyrir means and translates (usually) as before, and eftir means and translates as after. Remember that these are still prepositions: they cannot appear alone, without their event. Both fyrir and eftir take the accusative case in this use.
- Gunnar borðar morgunmat fyrir vinnu(acc) > Gunnar eats breakfast before work.
- Fyrir Covid(acc) las ég aldrei bækur > Pre-Covid I never read books.
- Margrét fer heim eftir vinnu(acc) > Margrét goes home after work.
English allows the use of before and after as adverbs where Icelandic does not. This yields phrases like after, I went to the market where the Icelandic eftir cannot appear without its event. Instead, it can be referred to with a pronoun like það.
- Eftir það fór Helga á markaðinn > After (that), Helga went to the market.
Prepositions with Both Time and Events
As prepositions with time and events, fyrir and eftir are still quite clear equivalents to English before and after (e.g. five minutes before closing). They both take the accusative case in this use, assigning it to the event. The time difference is in the dative, as per the dative degree of difference, which we will explore in full in our article on Comparisons.
- Ólafur mætti tveimur(dat) mínútum(dat) fyrir lokun(acc) > Ólafur showed up two minutes before closing.
- Sigrún fór heim þremur(dat) klukkutímum(dat) eftir prófið(acc) > Sigrún went home three hours after the exam.
Áður en / eftir að
Áður en and eftir að are conjunctions, not prepositions like eftir and fyrir. That means they are followed by a whole clause (subject and verb), not just a noun phrase (group of words which can be replaced with one word, like he, she, or it). Áður en means and translates as before and eftir að means following, and translates as after. In the following examples, the relevant clause is bolded.
- Áður en við kynntumst leiddist mér oft > Before we met I was bored a lot.
- Eftir að Einar hætti hefur ekki verið gaman í vinnunni > After Einar quit, work hasn’t been fun.
Á undan / (á) eftir
Á undan and á eftir are technically not timing expressions as they indicate order, not time. However, they take an honorary spot in this article to prevent confusion. Á undan means ahead of and translates as before, while á eftir means behind and translates as after. They are prepositions which take the dative case. The á in á eftir may optionally be dropped, with no effect on meaning or usage.
- “a” er á undan “bé”(dat) í stafrófinu > “a” is before “b” in the alphabet.
- Það er einhver maður undan mér(dat) í röðinni > There’s some man ahead of me in the queue.
- Ég skal fara inn eftir þér(dat) > I’ll go in after you.
- Hún var á eftir mér(dat) í röðinni! > She was behind me in the queue!
Á eftir can also be a deictic timing expression meaning later today, as we cover in Deictic Timing. Its use is distinctly different, as here it is a preposition, not an adverb as when it is used deictically.
Snemma / seint
Snemma and seint mean early and late, in the sense of not at the agreed upon time or early / late in the day. They are adverbs. Note that when the degree of lateness or ”early-ness” is specified, it’s in the dative as per the dative of degree of difference, which we explore in our article on comparisons.
- Ingibjörg kom allt of seint > Ingibjörg came way too late.
- Kristján kom allt of snemma > Kristján came way too early.
- Gísli vaknar alltaf snemma > Gísli always wakes up early.
- Hjörtur fer alltaf seint að sofa > Hjörtur always goes to bed late.
The comparative forms of snemma and seint are fyrr and seinna, respectively. The comparative is how things are compared, like stronger or more beautiful in English. Yes, snemma leads to fyrr; it’s irregular, like how well leads to better. The en in the sentences below is simply part of the comparative structure, which we explore fully in our article on comparisons.
- Ég veit að ég kom seint, en Jóhanna kom seinna en ég > I know that I was late, but Jóhanna was later than me.
- Björn vaknaði jafnvel fyrr en Kristján > Björn woke up even earlier than Kristján.
- Ég skal skrifa greinina um samanburð seinna > I’ll write the article on comparisons later.
As we see in the last example, seinna doesn’t necessarily have to compare anything, just like later in English. Note that earlier today and later today would be áðan and á eftir, as explored in Deictic Timing.
Seinn, in addition to being an adverb, can also be used as an adjective (inflecting with gender etc.) if it describes the person or event, and not the action.
- Ég er viku sein(fem.) á túr > I’m a week late for my period (speaker is female) (sein is an adjective describing the person).
- Ég er fimm mínútum seinn(masc.) > I’m five minutes late (speaker is male) (seinn is an adjective describing the person).
Point-relative timing expressions refer to a point other than the here and now, like deictic terms. Eftir has altogether too many meanings, but they generally have distinct uses. Fyrir / eftir are prepositions which can be used with time, events, or time and events. Áður en / eftir að are conjunctions, á undan / (á) eftir are prepositions which indicate order, not time, and snemma / seint are adverbs.
This table summarises the point-relative timing expressions discussed above.