Choosing between “last” and “over the last/past” can make a huge difference in the meaning.
One thing I’ve noticed from hearing students talk about past duration is that there is a lot of incorrect translation that happens, and this usually involves saying “in the last” with a time-period, such as “in the last year” or “in the last month”, but this can cause confusion for a native speaker and also communicate the incorrect message.
In this lesson, we’ll take a look at the difference between saying “in the last” or just “last” with a time-period, and also the use of the expression “over the last” and “over the past”.
“Last” + time-period
If you use the word “last” with a time-period, such as “last year”, “last month”, or “last week”, it means you are talking about a finished time-period. For example, if today is Wednesday June 14th 2020, then the following is true:
Last year = 2019
Last month = May
Last week = Monday June 5th – Sunday June 11th
The point here is that using the word “last” often indicates that there is no connection to the present – you are looking at a completed period. It is important to use “last” to describe this finished period.
“In the last” + time-period or “Over the last/past” + time period
When you use “in the last” with a time-period, such as “in the last year”, “in the last month”, or “in the last week”, it connects to the present, which is different than using just “last”. For example, if you say “in the last year”, then you are talking about 365 days ago until now. This is different than saying “last year” which was January – December of the year that already finished.
If today is Wednesday June 14th 2020, then the following is true:
In the last year = June 14th 2019 – today (a year ago until today)
In the last month = May 14th – today (a month ago until today)
In the last week = June 7th – today (seven days ago until today)
The important point here is that if you want to connect the past to the present, you can use “in the last” and if you want to talk about a period that is completed, use only the word “last”. You can see a comparison below. Imagine that today is June 14th 2020 for each example:
“Last month I worked from home.” – this was true in May (but we don’t know about June)
“In the last month I’ve worked from home.” – this started on May 14th and is still true now
You can also notice that “last” uses past simple because it’s talking about a completely finished time-period, while “in the last” uses present perfect because it connects to the present. This is an important way to understand these two tenses. Past simple describes an event in a time-period that is finished. On the other hand, present perfect describes a situation that is still ongoing.
You can also use the preposition “over” instead of “in”, so instead of saying “in the last week”, you can say: “over the last week”. You can also use the word “past” instead of “last” and say “in/over the past week”. In fact, saying “over the past…” is more common than saying “in the last….”.
To summarize, the expressions below have the same meaning:
“I haven’t seen her in the last three days.” – three days ago until now
“I haven’t seen her over the last three days.” – three days ago until now
“I haven’t seen her in the past three days.” – three days ago until now
“I haven’t seen her over the past three days.” – three days ago until now
This is useful language to use when you want to make it clear that the situation is still ongoing in the present. For example, imagine that you started feeling sick seven days ago and you still feel sick today. In this case, you don’t want to use “last week” because that means you are talking about the completed previous week of Monday to Sunday. Instead, you should use “in/over the last week” or “in/over the past week”:
“In/Over the last week, I’ve been feeling sick.” – correct
“In/Over the past week, I’ve been feeling sick.” – correct
By using this language, you make it clear that you are talking about something that is still happening now and that the duration is seven days until today.
Fill in the blank with “last” if the person is describing a finished time-period with past simple tense and use “in the last”, “in the past”, “over the last” or “over the past” if the person is describing an ongoing situation with present perfect (you can use any of these four options).
I’ve been saving money _____________________ year.
I saved a lot of money ____________________ year.
Three employees have quit ____________________ week.
Three employees quit __________________ week.
I didn’t take any vacation _________________ year.
I haven’t taken any vacation ________________ year.
There weren’t any changes ______________ week.
There haven’t been any changes _________________ week.
1. Over the last / Over the past / In the last / In the past
3. Over the last / Over the past / In the last / In the past
6. Over the last / Over the past / In the last / In the past
8. Over the last / Over the past / In the last / In the past