Ask the Editor
Peter Sokolowski, Editor at Large
"Before," "opposite," "across from," and "in front of"
Wednesday March 11th 2009
"Before," "opposite," "across from," and "in front of"

A reader asks about the differences between these words.  Editor Kory Stamper explains.

'Can you tell me the difference between "before," "opposite," "across from," and "in front of"?'

These four prepositions and prepositional phrases are used to show position.  Before is the broadest of the four.  It can refer to preceding someone or something in an order or series ("The number 24 comes before 25."), as well as being in a higher rank or place than someone or something else ("She came before him in the test scores.").  It also can indicate something that is in the future ("He doesn't know what lies before him after college.").  When used of physical position, it generally refers to being positioned ahead of someone or something, with your face or body either facing or able to be seen by that someone or something ("The students sat before the blackboard." [=with their faces turned toward the blackboard], "She stood on stage before the crowd." [=she stood on the stage so that the crowd could see her]). It also has a slightly extended sense that refers to being in the presence of someone or something ("He went before the king to beg for mercy.").

In front of is limited to physical position only, in both the literal way ("I stood in front of the store.") and in the extended sense ("She was humiliated in front of hundreds of audience members.").  It is not used of time, rank, order, or series.

The preposition opposite also is only used of physical position, but it has a more specific use than before or in front ofOpposite is used to say the person or object being referred to is located at the other end, side, or corner of something else ("He sat opposite me at the table." [=he sat on the other side of the table from me], "She was opposite the deli when the crash happened." [=she was on the other side of the street from the deli when the crash happened]).

Across from has the same meaning and uses as opposite ("He sat opposite me at the table. = He sat across from me at the table. [=he sat on the other side of the table from me]).  Like in front of, opposite and across from can refer only to physical position.