I have a question about the meaning of "recent past" in relation to the use of the present perfect continuous. Recently finished action with a result in the present.

For example: "I am tired because I have been cleaning my house." I am not cleaning now, I have finished cleaning in the recent past, but I am tired in the present because of the past action. The past action has to be recent to justify the present perfect continuous.

How recent is recent? If I stopped cleaning an hour ago but I am still tired now, can I use the present perfect continuous? Or is it only justified if the cleaning stopped a few minutes ago?

  • Anouk, It is about whether a state or condition continues to be true when you speak. Until you spoke, you were cleaning. "I've been fed up about this issue for months." I am still fed up now. :)
    – Lambie
    May 17, 2020 at 14:40
  • Lambie the ppc has two uses, one that is continuing and one that has recently stopped. You only ever mention the continuing variety. In my version the cleaning has stopped but the tiredness continues.
    – anouk
    May 17, 2020 at 15:00
  • The tiredness continues because *at the time of speaking, you continue to be tired. Your ppc rule is wrong.
    – Lambie
    May 17, 2020 at 16:18
  • Yes, but the cleaning stopped a while ago, in your version the cleaning continues until the moment of speaking. The tiredness is a result of the cleaning that has recently finished. "My"rule is from grammar books, it is not mine.
    – anouk
    May 17, 2020 at 16:22
  • No,it (the cleaning) does not continue. The tiredness is what continues. I think you have still not really got the idea of time of speaking on the timeline.
    – Lambie
    May 17, 2020 at 16:24

1 Answer 1


The concept of recent is relative to what is being discussed.

I have been cleaning the dishes

implies sometime today, probably within the last hour or so. Why? Because cleaning the dishes is an almost daily occurrence in most households.

I have been studying for the bar exam

implies that you are not studying now. It does not imply that you have been studying today or that you will not be studying again tomorrow. It implies that you have been doing so for some unspecified period, probably days or weeks or perhaps even one or two months. It does not imply that you stopped twenty years ago when you passed the bar exam.

There is no rule based purely on measures of physical time. Language is a social construct and relates to the social context of what is being discussed. So "recent" varies with what is being discussed.

In the case discussed by Lambie in the comments, she seems to assert that, so long as the condition caused by the action specified by the verb continues, the event remains "recent." I cannot wholly subscribe to that assertion if she even intended it. It is too extreme and relates only where causation is implicit or explicit..

I think, however, it is perfectly valid in the context in which it was made.

I have been washing all the outdoor furniture and am so tired

is proper and does not indicate with temporal precision when the washing stopped, but it does imply that the washing caused the current tiredness and so must have ended after the previous time that the speaker experienced tiredness. But this point about the continuing nature of the condition caused is not absolute (nor, to be fair, did Lambie explicitly say that it was absolute).

The U.S. government has been working to free Europe from German occupation

would have been a sensible thing to write in 1946, but it is ridiculous to write in 2020 even though Europe remains free from all German occupation (except tourists).

I think you need to take Lambie's point about whether the condition caused is continuing at the time of speaking as helping to define what is recent without fully determining it.

In short, recency is relative and determined by social and human considerations rather than by a clock or a calendar. Moreover, any ambiguity can be resolved by inserting an explicit time marker.

I was washing the outdoor furniture until an hour ago and am just so tired out.

  • "I have been cleaning the dishes implies sometime today, probably within the last hour or so." Can I say "I have been cleaning the dishes today" a few hours later, it is still today, which to me is still recent. Is that possible? – anouk
    – anouk
    May 17, 2020 at 19:05
  • 2
    What I am trying to say is that "recent" is not a rigidly defined concept. In most circumstances, a few hours is recent. But there may be circumstances when a few hours would not be recent. "I have been driving at 90 miles per hour along I-95 in pursuit of a fleeing murderer" implies that such a dramatic event was more recent than hours away. This is an example of what Lambie was getting at: the excitement of that chase would fade away in hours. Recency is defined in terms of human emotions, human states, social conventions. You are looking for a hard and fast rule: there isn't one. May 17, 2020 at 19:54
  • I have one more question: how much time must pass before the present perfect continuous "I have been cleaning the dishes" becomes inappropriate ( minutes or a few hours) and the past continuous "I was cleaning the dishes" should be used or is that not clearly defined either?
    – anouk
    May 19, 2020 at 18:57
  • 1
    It will vary with the situation, with the people involved, etc. If the conversation happens at two minutes past midnight, recent will probably include part of yesterday. I do not believe that any rule will cover all situations, but try this as a rough guideline. The less significant the action, the shorter the time period "recency" usually covers, but, as Lambie indicated, if the action has a continuing effect at the present, the time period lengthens. I am sorry that I cannot give you some mechanical rule, but I will not knowingly give you something that will often be wrong. May 19, 2020 at 20:10

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