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Microsoft has steadily improved its operating cash flows in the past three years.

Microsoft has steadily improved its operating cash flows in the last three years.

Microsoft has steadily improved its operating cash flows for the past three years.

Microsoft has steadily improved its operating cash flows for the last three years.

Microsoft has steadily improved its operating cash flows for the past three years. ("for" omitted)

Microsoft has steadily improved its operating cash flows for the last three years. ("for" omitted)

Microsoft has steadily improved its operating cash flows during the past three years.

Microsoft has steadily improved its operating cash flows during the last three years.

Microsoft has steadily improved its operating cash flows over the past three years.

Microsoft has steadily improved its operating cash flows over the last three years.

Which of them are idiomatic and preferred? Are they interchangeable?

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3 Answers 3

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Although they are more or less interchangeable, the verb phrase "has steadily improved" makes some choices better than others. "In" works least well. "Over" and "for" work best, since they are most congruent with the idea of "steady improvement".

"...the last three years" is more likely to be heard than to be written, and it would probably begin the sentence: "The last three years, Microsoft has..."

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  • What about "...the past three years"?
    – Kinzle B
    Sep 15, 2014 at 13:26
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    Without a preposition "the last|past three years") would probably would be heard in casual speech more often than it would be read. Steady improvement in cash flow over the three year time-period seems to be the main idea in the statement, so it would be best to make that idea as clear as possible by choosing the best preposition, the best adjective, and by subordinating everything else. "Cash flow at Microsoft over the last|past three years has steadily improved."
    – TimR
    Sep 15, 2014 at 16:54
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Each of the examples above is grammatically correct, but with a slightly different meaning.

First, the question of "past" or "last" is less important, and it may depend on context. To me, "past" means specifically that each of the three years in question has already ended, whereas "last" might include the current year. Context is more important than the choice of words here.

The phrasing is more important. This is somewhat subjective, but to me the different prepositions indicate these connotations:

  • "... in the past/last three years": Cash flows steadily improved during some interval of these years
  • "... for the past/last three years": Cash flows started improving three years ago and never stopped
  • "... the past/last three years": Same as "for", but a bit awkward to my ears
  • "... during the past/last three years": Same as "in"
  • "... over the past/last three years": Probably the same as "for", but now there is some ambiguity. "Over" could be a comparison between the current improved cash flow and that of the previous three years.
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    Cash flows steadily improved at some point during these years? I think it takes time to steadily improve. It cannot occur at some point in time.
    – Kinzle B
    Jul 14, 2014 at 15:01
  • I'll revise the answer to say that "during" and "in" are the same to me in this context. Jul 14, 2014 at 15:06
  • steadily improved during some interval of these [i.e. 3] years is a contradiction. If the improvement happened not during the entire period, but during some interval contained within that period, it would not be "steadily".
    – TimR
    Sep 14, 2014 at 19:39
  • Great answer, helped me to write "Self-employed during the past five years" in my resume. Feb 23, 2021 at 23:54
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None of these sentences are glaringly wrong.

I think "in" is a poor choice here because, as @AustinMullins says, "in [time period]" is usually understood to mean an event that occurred at a specific time within that period, not something ongoing for the entire period. "For" is generally used for an on-going event.

Examples: "20% of Americans have changed jobs in the past 3 years" versus, "10% of Americans have been unemployed for over a year". (Not real statistics, just grammar examples.)

"Over [time period]" is generally used when you are talking about a trend, like here. "Our budget has increased over the past 3 years." It can be used for on-going events. "I learned to play the flute over the past 3 years." But I think that's less common.

Note that "over" can also mean "more than", as in, "We worked on this project for over a year."

And as Austin says, "last" and "past" are largely interchangeable. I think either could include the current time period, but we're more likely to say "last" when we mean to include the current.

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