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The thing which confuses me is the usage of “in” and “for” in the following examples.

I think the following description of the meaning of these sentences is correct.

1) It has rained for the last week. (”for” represents a continuing action)
2) It has rained in the last week. (”in” represents a once-off action)

For = conveys an action lasting the whole period of time.
In = indicates that something happens within this period of time but the action doesn’t last the whole period.

My first question is:

Does “in” imply only one instance (occasion) of a certain action or more? That is, does the sentence “It has rained in the last week” say that there was only one instance when it rained or can it mean that there was more than one instance when it was raining? (I suspect that it conveys only one instance of some action, but I am not sure)

Now, the difficult part begins. I have noticed that with some verbs “in” carries the meaning of completeness. For example,

3) I have learnt English in the last 3 years. (It means that I have completed my English studies and now I know English.)

The main question:

It makes me wonder why 3) can’t be understood as “I have been involved (maybe only once) in the process of learning English in the last three years. But I haven’t mastered it.” In other words, why can’t 3) be understood as 2)? (I hope you don’t think that I mean the lexical meanings of “to rain” and “to learn”. I mean why can’t 3) mean that I learnt English only once during that period?)

I hope I managed to make my issue clear to you.

  • "in the last week" doesn't necessarily mean "only once". It could have rained multiple times, or even the whole time (in which case you could use "for"). – Phil Perry Mar 3 '14 at 15:43
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You ask,

I mean why can’t 3) mean that I learnt English only once during that period?

I think the problem is actually the use of the verb "learn", where you really mean "study".

The phrase "I have learnt" (or "I have learned", for my American ears) implies that your learning is complete. It uses the present perfect tense, meaning your learning is complete as of now. Saying "I have learned multiplication", for example, means you are proficient enough at multiplication that you don't need to study it any more.

I think what you are trying to say in "I learnt English in the last 3 years" is better expressed by the sentence "I have studied English in the last 3 years." The verb study better covers the meaning you're looking for: that of "learning" something one specific time, or for a period of time.

To say that you "learnt English only once" semantically is meaningless. When you say "I learnt English" it implies that you have mastered the language. You can't learn a language twice, unless you forget over the years. You can, however, study a language any number of times.

The comparison between in and for is a separate issue here. Saying, "I have learnt," or "It has rained," again means that the rain or the learning is complete. In is just a preposition that helps indicate the time frame of the rain or learning. However, when you use for here, "It has rained for the last week," the sense of completion is lost. This sentence implies "It has been raining (continuously) for the last week and it's probably still raining." (It actually changes the tense from present perfect to present perfect continuous, even though the verb doesn't change.)

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In response to your main question, I read sentence three as meaning "At some point in the last three years, I learned English". It doesn't say the exact time you learned English, nor does it necessarily indicate you stopped studying it once you learned it (indeed, many people never stop studying it!).

As to whether or not "in" indicates exactly one occurrence of something, it doesn't necessarily. "It rained in the last week" means that at some point during that week, it rained. It could have just been Tuesday, or Monday and Wednesday. All it says for sure is that at some point in the week, it rained, then it stopped.

  • I have read this post english.stackexchange.com/questions/66894/… and some people there say that "I have learned English language in the past few weeks" means that the langauge is learnt. At least, Barrie England and Peter Shor say that. And you say another thing. It's confusing. – user1425 Aug 8 '13 at 16:13
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    Edited my answer slightly to try to be more clear. I did not say (to my thinking) anything different than Barrie and Peter did. Your question is about how the word 'in' works. It is context-bound, and they both mention that. "I have learned English in the past few weeks" means "At some point in the past few weeks, I learned English." 'In' is used because you can't say "At 2:56 on Tuesday, I learned English". It's an ongoing process. – GnoveltyGnome Aug 8 '13 at 16:21
  • OK. I can see how it can mean "At some point in the past few weeks, I learned English." What I don't understand is why they say that it carries the idea of completeness.Barry says: because that suggests you’ve finished your studies and you don’t need to do any more. Why is it so? If we study the example with "rain" (2) we don't come to the conclusion that the rain is not going to rain in the future. So, why do they feel that there won't be any studies in the future? I think I am talking about completed/incompleted actions. Maybe I am not so clear. – user1425 Aug 8 '13 at 16:32
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    In the sentence "I have learned English in the past few weeks", the completeness does not come from the 'in' in that sentence, but from "I have learned" combined with 'in'. – GnoveltyGnome Aug 8 '13 at 16:37
  • Well, if you switch "in" for "for" you get a different idea. "I have learned English for the past few weeks" Seems like it's enough to eliminate only "in" to change the meaning drastically. – user1425 Aug 8 '13 at 16:41

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