Does anyone distinguish between before and ago these days? Is anyone else bothered by the nearly ubiquitous use of ago in fiction?
Take your standard third-person, past-tense narrative. Here a storyteller relates events occurring at some point in the past, and from the reader’s perspective, the storyteller is relating these events from the present, or at least the present associated with the time the book was written.
So when the storyteller says something like “Stephen remembered the events that happened three days ago,” the word ago would be associated with the storyteller’s present (three days before the time period in which the storyteller is telling the story), whereas the word before would be associated with the timeline of the character in the story (three days before the events that are being narrated in the story).
The word now is just as problematic, for the same reason, and when I come across it I usually find that the sentence would be just as sound if it were simply dropped.
The prevalence of ago for before in fiction (and, of course, I’m just talking about the particular instances when it wouldn’t be appropriate) is such that I have to believe it doesn’t bother the majority of readers. I can easily imagine that most readers simply pass it by without raising an eyebrow (and, to be fair, readers know what the author means; the intent is almost never unclear). But it always takes me out of the narrative, if only for a moment.