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I'm trying to understand why 先 is not the best choice to use in these sentences. Is it wrong to use it in this way?

× 先、学校で何かが起こった。
○ 以前、学校で何かが起こった。

× 先の書いた本から十年間が過ぎました。
○ 前に書いた本から十年間が過ぎました。

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Although this is not the point of your question, “先に書いた本” is perfectly acceptable, although this phrase somehow suggests to me that the speaker had planned to write at least two books from the beginning (this might not be agreed by all speakers of Japanese). “先の書いた本” is incorrect as Ignacio explained. – Tsuyoshi Ito May 31 '11 at 20:06
@Louis: Actually, could you specify whether you mean 先 as in さき (as in さきに) or さっき (as in さっきから) because I'm not quite so sure anymore. – Matti Virkkunen May 31 '11 at 20:08
@Tsuyoshi: Interesting, thank you. – Louis May 31 '11 at 20:13
@Matti: I'm not sure either, I just learned about さっき from you. I meant it like "Earlier, something happened at school" and "Ten years have past since the last book was written". Forgive the passive transformation in the second translation. – Louis May 31 '11 at 20:13
@Louis: In their own way, they both mean "earlier". さっき means "just a while ago" while さき is used when talking about the order of events (it means "before something else") – Matti Virkkunen May 31 '11 at 20:15
up vote 11 down vote accepted

I'm going to assume you mean 先 as in さっき. It's usually written in hiragana to avoid confusion.

I think the first sentences are just fine. The × one sounds like spoken language and ○ one sounds more like written language.

In the second × sentence, though, さっき would not work because it's used for things that happened "just now" and ten years ago is not "just now". Also, the の there is not correct, it's only used when さっき is used to modify a noun or a noun-phrase. You could say e.g.「さっき書いたメール」 for "an e-mail [I] wrote just now" though.

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Thank you Matti, I'll be careful about the hiragana. About the さっきの, doesn't 書いた本 become a noun? – Louis May 31 '11 at 20:09
@Louis, I think I understand what you're getting at. さっきの本 means 'the book from before'. So it is theoretically possible to parse the さっきの書いた本 as 'the book from before, which sby wrote'. However, it is more natural to assume that the さっき refers to the act of writing, in which case it would be さっき書いた本. This doesn't make much sense either, though, since さっき means just a few moments ago. If you just finished writing a book a few moments ago, you could say さっき書き終えた本. – dainichi Feb 18 '12 at 8:02
@oldergod I thought 先 = さき. Am I wrong? – dotnetN00b Apr 26 '12 at 13:47
@dotnetN00b That is correct. I never saw 先 meaning さっき and viceversa. That is why I got confused when M.Virkkunen said that 先 could mean さっき. – oldergod Apr 26 '12 at 23:56
@Aki I don't know how the dictionaries define it, but I was corrected unanimously by native speakers when I tried to use 先 (ahead) to mean さっき (just now) on Lang-8. So I'm convinced that, at least in modern usage, the two have very different meanings. – InvalidBrainException Nov 16 '15 at 13:46

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