Cheat sheet 5 – Talking about the recent past

In the next few posts we will look at the past. I am going to divide this into the recent past and the distant past. There will be some overlap and some grammatical tenses, like past simple, will be used for both. However, there are some differences and students of English will hopefully find the following to be a good overview of any of the structures or phrases we use for the recent past.


Past Simple

Whenever we talk in the past we can use past simple. Spanish students commonly make the mistake of thinking that Present Perfect is the tense for the recent past, but it is not true. Even if the finished action was five seconds ago, this is past simple, because it is completely finished and has no connection to now.

You just went to the toilet five minutes ago, now you need to go again!

Yesterday I saw the new Star Wars film, it sucked.

We only need to use the past simple form of the verb, or didn’t and Did for negatives and questions respectively.

Did you buy me a present?

No, I didn’t. It’s not for you, sorry.


Present Perfect

If I made you think that we don’t use the present perfect for the recent past then I apologise. We do. Just not in the way that the Spanish do. The present perfect is used for any past (recent or distant) that has some connection or relevance to now. This means that when we state exactly when an event in the past happened we use past simple; because we use present perfect to emphasise how it is connected to the present.

I have just finished my homework, let’s play!

I have recently taken up skateboarding.

We need to use adverbs like just or recently to express the nearness of these finished actions, otherwise it is not clear that they are recent, when we are using the Present Perfect Simple. However, the Present Perfect Continuous (have/has + been + verb-ing) is used when we can see the results of recent activity.

You’re sweating like a pig, Peter!

Yeah, I have just been running from the police, don’t ask.

 Have you been working out, Frank? Your muscles are looking really big.


Past Continuous

The past continuous does not have any special connection to recent past, but if the time that you are talking about is not long ago, then you will end up using it to express two things happening at the same time.

I woke up at 9am and there was banging all around me!


Written by James R. McCance for Aston School