When do we use recently with past tenses?

I came across some sentences in which I couldn't understand the use of recently.

  1. I recently wrote to my grandmother.

  2. They were working in Canada recently.

From Headway upper intermediate Teacher's Book p.7.

I thought we have to use it with the present perfect.

  • The "simple past tense" is often used to describe situations that have occurred in the past. The present-perfect construction has within it two tenses: a primary present-tense, and a secondary past-tense (the perfect). And so, the present-perfect can be used to involve two time spheres: the past time and the present time; and it is often used to describe a situation that has happened, or has started, in the past and that situation is important in the current present time (in the discussion that is ongoing now). The word "recently" can usually be used when the situation involves past time. – F.E. Apr 11 '15 at 19:30
  • Sorry, but what do you mean by primary present- tense and secondary past-tense? – scottie95 Feb 9 at 16:12
  • @scottie95 These are (versions of) terminology used by Huddleston and Pullum in their Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. If you don't have that book, these terms won't make sense. The authors analyze the perfect not as a kind of aspect but instead as a secondary tense system because its primary function is to locate things in time. See CGEL page 159 for discussion. – snailboat Feb 9 at 16:50

Both past and present perfect may be employed with recently to name an action in the recent past. Which you employ should be governed by the context in which that action occurs.

  • Use a past form if the action is one of a sequence of past actions, a narrative:

    I recently wrote my grandmother to tell her about my first year in college. She answered with a very funny letter about her own freshman year, in 1967-68.

    They were working in Canada recently, and collected many old songs about the Newfoundland whalters.

  • Use a perfect form if you name the action as the source of a present state:

    I have recently written my grandmother; I expect her to send me a check, and I will be able to pay you back.

    They have been working in Canada recently, and I have no idea when they will be back.

Keep in mind that the present perfect is a present tense, which makes a statement about the situation at the time you speak.

You can use "recently" with past and perfect tenses, as seen in these dictionary examples:

I recently bought a CD player.

Dean recently lost his job in a sports shop and applied to join the fire service.

"Recently" is often used with past participles on web sites. Examples: "recently watched videos", "recently read stories", "recently viewed items".

  • Yes, I've noticed the use of 'recently' on web sites. What is the difference then in: I've recently bought a CD player. AND I recently bought a CD player. – Svetlana Apr 11 '15 at 5:59
  • It's just like the normal difference between past and perfect tenses. "Recently" only means that you bought the CD player close to the present. – Adam Haun Apr 11 '15 at 22:14

There's no problem with using recently and the simple past. In that case, the reference is to an action that was completed or an event that took place in the recent past.

There's a gray area, however, with recently and the present perfect.

These two sound fine:

  1. I have purchased a CD recently.
    (Meaning: In the recent past, on at least one occasion, I bought a CD.)

  2. I purchased that CD recently.
    (Meaning: in the recent past, I bought that CD.)

But this sounds "off":

  1. I have purchased that CD recently.
    (Meaning: It's not clear what sentence #3 means. )

It is common practice here to try to find contexts where #3 would make sense; perhaps if certain words are emphasized, it could make clear sense. But there is a discord in the sentence that asks to be resolved.

The question is as much about the slightly different meanings of 'recently' as it is about tenses. 'Recently' can mean (1) a recent point in time or (2) a recent period of time extending until the present.

I bought a CD player recently. (1) I've been busy at work recently. (2)

I've recently bought a CD player is also fine; it means you bought it within a recent time period extending to the present.

Note: The 'up until now' concept with the present perfect includes both actions and states that continued over that time period or actions that happened within an unfinished time period (Have you been abroad this year? etc.)

Generally speaking, you can use the adverb "recently" in both the past simple and the present perfect, without any difference in meaning. The use of this adverb in the past is more common in AE while in the present perfect is more common in BE. However, if you look at these the senses minutely, there is sure some difference.

When you use the present perfect, you look at something as happening in the past but having a result in the present. In other words, we talk about the past and the present when we use the present perfect while, in the past simple, we look at an event as happening in the past only. For example:

I have purchased that CD recently indicates that I own or have that CD now.

On the other hand, "I purchased that CD recently" doesn't necessarily mean that I own or have it now. Maybe I sold it or it got stolen.

  • Ok, thank you very much indeed. But frankly, I'm not satisfied with your answer, sorry. For me there is a big difference between usage of Past Simple and Present Perfect. May be I cannot get the subtle part of a language. – Svetlana Apr 11 '15 at 10:24
  • @Svetlana: The past tense is used for an action completed in the past. When you use "recently", it's simply the recent past. There's no problem using recently with the past when you wish to express that something happened or was done recently. However, if you wish to express the idea that something has been happening (continuously or repeatedly) recently, then the simple past is a sub-optimal choice of tense. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Apr 11 '15 at 11:43
  • 1
    @Svetlana, I am sorry my answer didn't come across. You are right there's a big difference between the past simple and the present perfect, but we are talking about the use of "recently" in the simple past and the present perfect. "Recently" always means "in the recent past/immediately before the present whether you use it in the past simple or in the present .perfect. – Khan Apr 11 '15 at 12:06
  • @Khan: Not exactly - recently means not long before the narrative time. Narrative time could be the present moment (I recently gave up smoking), or long ago (My parents had only recently married when I was born). – FumbleFingers Apr 11 '15 at 12:12
  • @FumbleFingers, A good addition to my knowledge. Thanks. – Khan Apr 11 '15 at 16:51

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