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What's the difference between "lately" and "recently"?

I've been very busy lately.

and

I've been very busy recently.

Any subtle differences in meaning?

  • I haven't seen her lately is OK but I have seen her lately is not OK, not unless it is an emphatic denial of the opposite negative, when someone says "You have not seen her lately". "You're wrong about that. I have seen her lately!" – Tᴚoɯɐuo Apr 16 '18 at 19:08
  • @Tᴚoɯɐuo - Are you saying that unless it's the specific case of an emphatic denial of the opposite negative, "lately" must always be used in negative sentences? – brilliant Apr 16 '18 at 20:08
  • @Tᴚoɯɐuo No, that can't be right. Being emphatic has nothing to do with it. "Have you seen her lately?" "Yes. I have seen her lately." It's interesting that the question doesn't sound terribly wrong, nor does the answer—but the phrase on its own (outside of the answer) does sound wrong. But if it's not wrong in context, then this is more a matter of usage and style than technical grammar. – Jason Bassford Supports Monica Apr 17 '18 at 0:55
  • @Jason Bassford: The "yes" answer without emphasis sounds off to me. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Apr 17 '18 at 11:07
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Merriam-Webster's indicates that they are synonyms for each other and does not provide any meaningful distinction between them in terms of the example sentences that you give. So, I can't give an objective answer.

However, I do believe there is a difference in usage and meaning.

To explain, I will first use use a different scenario along with several different sentence constructions.

Bob started a new job last month that requires he wake up at 7 a.m every morning. This is a change for him, as, for years now, he would wake up at 8 a.m.

One morning, Bob leaves his house at 8:30 a.m.

Bob woke up recently. [He woke up just a short time ago.]

Bob woke up lately. [This is ungrammatical.]

Lately, Bob has been waking up at 8:30 a.m. [His schedule has changed from what it used to be a short while ago.]

Recently, Bob has been waking up at 8:30 a.m. [This is technically correct, but lately would be the preferred word as recently sounds a bit odd here.]

In considering these examples, I would say that recently implies a single event that has occurred a short time ago. Lately, however, implies a change in behaviour or circumstances, as well as referring to something that is more prolonged or recurring.

Returning to your actual examples:

I've been very busy recently. [Your basement flooded last night. It was an unexpected event that you've been dealing with to the exclusion of everything else. You think you have it fixed now.]

I've been very busy lately. [You weren't so busy before your child was born. Now, you always seem to have much less time. Your lifestyle has changed.]


Addendum: Following an offline chat resulting from comments, I thought it might be useful to list the verb tenses I believe are compatible with the two words.

Simple Past—"I ran." Recently only, although perhaps lately when used poetically or archaically.)

Present Perfect Passive—"I have been run off (the road when . . .)." Despite my initial misconception, this is not in the Present Perfect Progressive. Both work best with an extended event, like "I have been sick."

Past Progressive—"I was running (when . . .)." Recently only.

Present Perfect Progressive—"I have been running." (Lately would be preferred to recently, although recently is technically correct.)

  • So, could it be correct to summarize your answer as "recently" implying that the reason/factor of why you've been in a particular state is already or almost gone, while "lately" implying that the reason/factor is still there? – brilliant Apr 16 '18 at 5:53
  • Another question: Why is "Bob woke up lately" ungrammatical? is it because "lately" can only be used with Present Perfect Tense ("has woken up", "has been waking up") and never with Past Simple ("woke up")? – brilliant Apr 16 '18 at 5:56
  • @brilliant The summary I would give is the paragraph in my answer after my four "Bob" sentences. Your summary mentions a cause ("reason") for what's being described. Explanations for recent or late events or behaviour have no bearing on the grammar at all. – Jason Bassford Supports Monica Apr 16 '18 at 6:08
  • @brilliant I would say that neither "lately" nor "recently" should be used with the Simple Present, Future, Perfect, Progressive, or Past Perfect-Progressive tenses. Further, "lately" should not be used with the Simple Past tense. – Jason Bassford Supports Monica Apr 16 '18 at 6:21
  • "...neither "lately" nor "recently" should be used with the Simple Present, Future, Perfect, Progressive, or... " - Did you mean to say "Past" instead of "Perfect" here? – brilliant Apr 16 '18 at 6:49

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