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  16.5.4 prima che = before

Prima che is always followed by the congiuntivo. If one action is to be described as finished before another action starts, we use the congiuntivo di passato prossimo / congiuntivo trapassato. If one action just follows another one we use the congiuntivo presente / congiuntivo imperfetto. We can have both constellations in the past and in the present.

present / future
The action / event is finished, before another one starts
Before he has not sent the package, we don' t transfer the money.
One action / event follows another
Before we buy it, we must inform ourselves.

past tense
The action / event is finished, before another one starts
Before he got aware of it, the thieves had escaped with the purse.
One action / event follows another
Before he got on his bike, he examined the tire pressure.

The fact that the conjunction prima che requires always the conjunctive is not very logical. If the action / event refers to the future it is obvious that the moment where the action / event starts or finishs is insecure. The future is insecure, there is no doubt about that and therefore the use of the congiuntivo logical. But if we talk about an action / event that started or had been achieved in the past there is no insecurity at all. We are always very well-informed about the past, that's why the past is so boring and the future so interesting. The indicative would be more logical in this case. But in all roman languages and in all circumstances prima che / before is followed by the subjunctive.

French: Avant qu' il se fût rendu compte, les voleurs se sont échappés. *
Spanish: Antes de que se hubiera dado cuenta, los ladrones se escaparon.
Italian: Prima che si fosse reso conto, i ladri si sono scappati.
English: Before he got aware of it, the thieves had escaped.

* We use the unusual subjonctif plus-que-parfait. This is the "correct" form, although in nowadays French it has been substituted by the subjonctif passé composé.

Summary: Prima che requires the congiuntivo in any situation.

One action follows another: Congiuntivo presente / presente - futuro

Prima che paghi un avvocato per una consulenza desidero chiedere a qualcuno che ne sappia più di me su come dovrei comportarmi in caso di licenziamento.
Before I pay a lawyer for consulting I wanted to ask someone here who knows more than I do how I must behave in case of being fired.
Prima che faccia giorno, il gallo canterà tre volte.
Before the day is breaking, the cock crows three time.
Tutte le sere, prima che faccia buio, vado un po' fuori per fare una passeggiata.
Every evening before it gets dark I go out to make a walk.
Prima che arrivi la primavera devo assolutamente trovare una bici usata.
Before spring I must find a used bicycle.

The action / event is hypothetically finished before the next action / event starts: Congiuntivo passato prossimo / presente - imperativo.
Bisogna affrontare il conflitto prima che sia arrivato allo stadio della violenza.
We have to deal with the conflict before he reaches the state of violence.
Non mettere in funzione l'apparecchio prima che abbia raggiunto la temperatura ambiente.
Don' t turn the mashine on before it has reached room temperature.
Si paga un avvocato prima che sia conclusa una causa?
A lawyer is to be paid before the case is finished?
Controlla che porte e finestre siano ben chiuse e non farlo uscire prima che si sia abituato al nuovo ambiente.
Make sure that the doors and windows are closed tightly and do not let him out before he is accustomed to the new environement.

One event / action happens before an other action / event is accomplished: congiuntivo passato prossimo / presente (real, not hypothetical)

The same combination of tenses is used in a non hypothetical context. In this case the meaning must be deduced from the context.

Prima che abbia finito la frase mia madre scoppia in lacrime.
real situation:
Before I have finished the sentence my mother broke into tears.
hypothetical situation:
Before I have finished the sentence my mother broke into tears.
(My mother would break into tears even before I would be able to finish the sentence.)

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