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Rikaisama's definition of 先 includes meanings like previous; prior; former; some time ago. However it also includes meanings such as front; ahead; the future; destination. I am struggling to make sense of when to apply each meaning since it seems to me that they are pretty much the two sides of the same coin in one word. There's also 先に which can mean before; earlier than / ahead; beyond, among others.

I've noticed that if the meaning has to do with the past, the subsequent verb is in the past tense. This is a good starting point, but it doesn't always help me. Am I forced to learn each usage of 先 individually or is there some "rule" to the word that would help me identify it's meanings in different contexts?

Thank you in advance.

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There are about 6 main uses - my "Progressive EJ/JE dictionary give nine in total with examples. If you go by just English words it will be confusing. (Suggestion:) The only way is to identify and learn some simple examples. Giving them English labels can be helpful but focus on the meaning of the example not the label. – Tim May 18 '14 at 11:39

The rule between "prior" or "posterior"

You can judge the usage of [先]{さき} in a sentence if there is これから before or not.

If there is これから, expresses the posterior time.

If there is NOT これから, expresses the prior time.

Exaplanation of the usage of

There is a big hint that [先]{さき} expresses the RELATIVE past / future.

I show you how is used:

Figure 1: "I do X before I do Y."

I do X before I do Y

Figure 2: "I'm doing X before I do Y."

I'm doing X before I do Y

Figure 3: "I did X before I do / am doing / did Y."

I did X before I do / am doing / did Y.

Figure 4: "I do X in the future."

I do X in the future

Please take a look at Figure 1 through 3. If you say Yより先にXをする (I do X before I do Y) or simply 先にXをする (I do X before something/sometime), you're mentioning that you do X before you do Y or something. ("prior" usage)

Next, please take a look at Figure 4. If you say *これから* 先にXをする (I do X in the future), you're mentioning that you do X in the future. ("posterior" usage)

The difference between the "prior" usage and "posterior" usage is that you say with これから or without.

先に without これから doesn't mean future in ordinary usage.

As a result, you can judge the usage if there is これから or not.

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I think this is a huge oversimplification. How about "先が思いやられる","先が見える","この先","先が長くない". There are many other cases where 先 refers to the future. – dainichi May 19 '14 at 1:35

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