Using سبق أن


root: ب-د-ل / noun / plural: بَدائِل / definition: substitute, alternative

Another day, another grammar post! I just love finding different ways to express the same word or structure in Arabic—although perhaps you already know that, considering the fact that this blog has a synonyms series.

This week, I’m presenting you with an alternative way to express the pluperfect tense, instead of using the previously-discussed “كان + a past tense verb” construction.

Need to refresh your mind about the pluperfect tense? No worries:

The pluperfect tense refers to past tense constructions such as “had decided” or “have known“. We use it when we are referring to something that happened before the point in time we were already talking about.

For example: I was on the plane to Madagascar. I had been there twice before.

So another way to form this construction in Arabic is:

سَبَقَ أن


past tense verb

The verb سَبَقَ / يَسبِق literally means “to precede/come before”.

When we use it to form pluperfect constructions, we simply use its past tense, third person, singular form (سَبَقَ) regardless of the subject of the sentence—i.e. it’s a fixed phrase in this context.

Then, we follow it with the particle أنْ. In most cases, أن must be followed by المضارع المنصوب, a present tense subjunctive verb like يَفعَلَ.

But in this construction, we follow it with a past tense verb. And unlike the first verb سبق, the past tense verb after أن is conjugated according to the subject.

Let’s take a look at an example. I actually came across this phrase in a documentary I was watching about Ancient Egypt*, and it happened to be the first time I’d heard this construction:

أجمَل مكان سَبَقَ أن زُرتُهُ

the most beautiful place I have visited

In the example above, we can see the fixed phrase سبق أن followed by زُرتُهُ, meaning “I visited (it)”.

If we were to use the “كان + a past tense verb” construction that we covered in this previous post, we could create the same meaning as follows:

أجمَل مكان كُنتُ قَد زُرتُهُ

As we mentioned in that post, the قَد between the two verbs in this type of construction is optional but frequently used.

And we’re likely to find قَد used along with the سبق أن construction too—but in this case, قد comes before the verb سبق.

قد simply emphasises the past tense in Arabic and is often used for stylistic reasons. However, we sometimes translate it as “already”.

For example:

قَد سَبَقَ أن اِتَّصَلوا بِه

they had already contacted him

Another point to be aware of regarding “سبق أن” is that sometimes the subject of the clause is introduced with لِـ directly after the verb سبق.

Here’s an example from the Hans Wehr:

سبق له أن قابَلَه

he had met him before

As the subject here is هو “he”, we add the pronoun suffix ـهُ to لِـ to get لَهُ.

If the subject of that clause was “I”, we would say:

سبق لي أن قابَلتُه

I had met him before

I’ll never stop recommending you to read the dictionary in cases like this, because the Arabic dictionary is great for both vocabulary and grammar.

Take a look—the Hans Wehr tells us more ways in which the سبق أن construction can be used:

1) We can substitute the “أن + verb” part of the formula with a مصدر (verbal noun)

…سبق لنا القَولُ أن

we have already said that…

(If we weren’t using the مصدر here, we would say “سبق (لنا) أن قُلنا أن”. This is a brilliant example of when we should replace the أن and verb with the مصدر—to avoid the awkward-sounding repetition of أن that we’d otherwise have!)

…سبق الحُكمُ عليه بِـ

he had been previously sentenced to…

2) We can negate this construction using “لم يسبق”

…لم يسبق لي أن

I have never before…

Ahh, Arabic grammar is so refreshing isn’t it?

Remember that you can get an email update every time a new post appears on The Arabic Pages by subscribing below—be the first one to read new posts!

And don’t forget to check out last week’s post, Step-by-Step Arabic Literature Translation #4, for a word-by-word vocabulary and grammar walkthrough of an excerpt of Arabic poetry.

That’s all for now, إلى اللقاء!

* You can see the vocabulary I collected from that documentary in this Quizlet vocabulary set!

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