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Recently: the Time Adverbial that trespasses Grammar to Reach out for Difference

By Maaouia Haj Mabrouk: ELT inspector Tunisia


Among the adjunct adverbials1 that kept puzzling me as a teacher, then as a teacher trainer, then as a researcher was the adverbial “recently”. As a student, things were easier for me. I took as the absolute truth what my teachers taught me, which in fact, echoed what textbooks taught at that time that “recently” is a time adverbial, which expresses the temporal proximity of a past situation relative to the moment of utterance.

Therefore it should only be used with the present perfect tense. Later, with the readings and the research work I conducted, I came to realize that recentness was not the sole meaning conveyed through the use of “recently”, that the use of “recently” was not as systematic as I thought it to be and that grammar was not a mere set of rules or a cluster of well-arranged words (subject, predicate, object, subordinate clause and so forth) making gramatically-correct sentences (as was once advocated through Chomsky’s Generative Grammar and “Syntactic Structures”: 1957). I could also understand that the two main varieties2 of English: American English and British English could be different in many ways, for reasons that may even be traced back to the legacy of the two peoples’ history.

I then came to the conclusion that the rules I spent so much time rote learning are not evidently the rules that native speakers of English make use of in their daily spoken or written communication. I undoubtedly missed that cultural load they invest in their communication. I didn’t understand that performance3 is as important as competence4 and that native speakerism5 should not be the sole lantern we, EFL learners and practitioners, hold in hand in our quest for language proficiency. The concern should rather be how people use language and the reasons that underpin the way they use it. Hallidays (1973:

  1. Adjunct adverbials, adverbs, temporal adverbs and time adverbials are used interchangeably in this article.
  2. Variety: a distinct form of language spoken by a particular group of people or in a particular region. A time dimension could be added to introduce historical varieties of a particular language (for instance the 19th century Irish English. (Davidova, 1977: 14).
  3. Performance is a person’s actual use of language. In second and foreign language learning, a learner’s performance in a language is often taken as an indirect indication of his or her competence.
  4. Competence is the implicit system of rules that constitutes a person’s knowledge of a language. Communicative competence is knowledge of not only if something is formally possible in a language, but also whether it is feasible, appropriate, or done in a particular speech community. It includes: grammatical competence, sociolinguistic competence, discourse competence, strategic competence, …
  5. Native speakerism is the belief, sometimes unjustified, that native-speaker teachers of English are superior to English teachers whose native tongue is not English.
    Definitions 2, 3, 4 and 5 are taken from Longman Dictionary of Language Teaching and Applied Linguistics. 4th Edition.
    7; cited in Givon, 2001) advocates the functional approach to language, which means:

“Investigating how language is used: trying to find out what are the purposes that language serves for us, and how we are able to achieve these purposes through speaking and listening, reading and writing.”

The study of the adverbial “recently”, its semantic-pragmatic use; proves that grammar goes beyond rules and that language goes beyond grammar. It is syntactic rules, culture and identity fused together. Semantic theorists confirm that:

“linguistics cannot be limited to the documentation of what is said and how it is interpreted-our actual performance as speakers and hearers-any more than physics can limit its subject matter to the documentation of measurements and meter readings of directly observable physical phenomena. The linguistic knowledge we seek to model, speakers’ competence, must be distinguished from their observable linguistic behavior. ”4 (Chierchia. G and McConnell-Ginet. S, 2000: 2).

Recently: the adverbial that marks our discourse – 6

“Recently” comes from the root “recent” which in its Latin origin means fresh or new. In geology and astronomy, Recent (with capital ‘R’) refers to the Holocene epoch or rock epoch occurring approximately 10.000 years ago. In its linguistic function, “recently” is an adverbial of time which is usually used to express an action that started somewhere in the past, continues in the present, or is the source of a present state.

Adverbs or adjunct adverbials are, by definition, words, expressions, phrases or clauses which, once added to a sentence, modify it or enrich it with additional information relating to manner, place, time, cause, reason, purpose, result, …

For instance, the two sentences in example 1 below are totally different, though apparently similar as they seem to convey the same information. In sentence a, the focus is rather on the predicate or the action that has been carried out by the subject, whereas in sentence b, and because of the presence of “recently”, the focus shifts to the indefinite time wherein the action took place.

Example 1:

  • a- I have changed my phone number.
  • b- I have recently changed my phone number.

Adverbials are constituents of neither the verb nor the subject, yet they have their indelible effect on the sentence. In example 2 stated below, the adjunct “fortunately” even denotes the expression of a special feeling about a state of things (see sentence b below).

     6. Discourse: language which has been produced as the result of an act of communication. Longman Dictionary of Language Teaching and Applied Linguistics. 4th Edition.

Example 2:

  • a- The rain stopped and we were able to reach the motel.
  • b- Fortunately, the rain stopped and we were able to reach the motel.

Still highlighting the spectrum of meanings that might be conveyed through the adverbial “recently”, Elsness (1997: 2) precises that “She’s recently broken her leg”, for instance, may be given as a reason why someone cannot attend a party. The time when the action took place does not really matter. What matters is the piece of information transmitted to the interlocutor. Mindt (2000: 224) explains that the present perfect conveys four different meanings: the indefinite past, the past continuing in the present, the recent past or an action that finished in the past while its time remains unspecified. Mindt also claims that the first use (the indefinite past) accounts for almost 80 °/° of all instances where the present perfect occurs and that the second accounts for around 5 °/° only. “Recently” belongs to the set of adverbials used to express the first meaning of the present perfect that is the indefinite past.

Elsness. J (1997: 9) also stipulates that “the function of the present perfect is associated with a period extending from some (known or unknown) time in the past up to the deictic zero-point.”

However, readings in this field have shown that the adverbial “recently” sometimes occurs in cases where the past tense is seen as the norm, particularly in the American discourse; which may seem peculiar to those who still take grammar rules for the absolute, unquestionable source of “correct English”. There is in fact a good number of explanations behind that, and “Recently” then becomes the indication of an attitude, a choice or a particular position. Digging in this direction, I could reach the conclusion that substituting the past for the present perfect in sentences which, because of the presence of the adverb “recently”, must only happen with the present perfect, cannot be arbitrary and that some reasons, other than linguistic appropriateness, may account for that.

Recently: the rebel adverbial, breaker of all rules

a- Present perfect and past: dichotomy or harmony?

For many English users around the world, the borders between tenses are clearly defined: the past occurs with adverbials of time such as: ago, last month, yesterday, whereas the present perfect happens with adverbials that refer to a recent past: just, recently and adverbials which involve the present: so far, until now, up to now, already, Elsness (1997: introduction) stipulates:

“A number of languages have two competing verb forms whose chief function is to express past time: one inflectional7 form generally known as the preterite (English “did”) and one periphrastic8 form called (present) perfect, consisting of a present tense form of an auxiliary corresponding to either HAVE or BE followed by the past participle (English “have done”).”

Yet the distinction between the two tenses (the past and the present perfect) is not always that evident because it is not that recent. It goes as far back as the Middle Ages (Miller, 2004: 235) and with adverbials such as “recently” floating between the two, it becomes urgent for researchers to recognize the complexity of this phenomenon and to try to identify the reasons behind such complexity. For Givon, T. (1984: 278), one of the reasons of this complexity lies in the perfect aspect itself, as it has no delimitations in time. He declares: “of all tense-aspects in human language, the so called “perfect” is by far the most complex.” Henceforth, while the predicate can only express an action that is anchored in the past, the present perfect remains the expression of uncertainty and indefiniteness, used mainly to bridge the gap that exists between the past and the present.

The distinction between the past and the present perfect is not as systematic as it seems, either. What once was qualified as odd and “ungrammatical” may become a common language practice and perfect constructions with definite past time references, as shown in the examples below, are now of no grammatical incongruity:

  • a- “Roberts has played for us last season” (Hughes et al, 2005: 12 f).
  • b- “You look like you just heard a real gasser.” (Brown, p. 27, cited in International Computer Archive of Modern and Medieval English (ICAME) Journal).
  • c- “Well, it’s worked yesterday” (ICAME Journal, p.56).
  • d- “I haven’t smoked yesterday” (ICAME Journal, p.56).
    Studies in the field have shown that American English is leading the change. In American English constructions, it is quite frequent now to find sentences where “recently” is used with the simple past, particularly in American media communication.

b- Recently: the expression of the American difference

Starting from my study of the adverbial “recently”, I could assert that it has become commonplace for Americans nowadays, particularly in media and network communication, to use “recently” with the simple past instead of the present perfect. Such a practice is not just a gesture of freeing oneself from the stringent rules of grammar. It is rather the expression of independence from Britain and from blindly adopting the English language standards established hundreds of years ago. In fact, as early as 1789, the American lexicographer9

7 . Inflection: the modification of a word to express different grammatical categories such as tense, case, voice, aspect, person, number, gender, and mood. The inflection of verbs is also called conjugation. Wikipedia.
8. Periphrastic: employing or involving periphrasis. Used esp of a tense of a verb where the alternative element is an auxiliary verb. For example, He does go and He will go involve periphrastic tenses. Collins Dictionary, online.

Noah Webster, states in his Dissertations on the English Language:

“As an independent nation, our honor requires us to have a system of our own, in language as well as government. Great Britain, whose children we are, should no longer be our standard.” (Cited in Nordic Journal of English Studies. V1, No2. P. 302).

The Nordic Journal of English Studies (NJES) also reveals that this attitude on the part of Americans to distance their language from British English belongs to a long tradition of language consciousness and involvement and that:

“This goes back all the way to the birth of the new nation towards the end of the 18th century. Indeed, at that time, there seems to have been a strong feeling that the U.S ought to distance and liberate herself from Britain also in the field of language.” (p. 302).

“After the Revolution”, explains Stamp, J. (2013), “a national language seemed like a natural development for a new country”. The trend was supported by key events and dates that actually marked this determination of Americans to distinguish their language from British English. A series of dictionaries were issued (Jhon Walker’s Dictionary: 1791; Samuel Jhon’s School Dictionary: 1798 – 1799; Webster’s Dictionary: 1806; Webster’s American Dictionary of English Language: 1828…) and “until the appearance of the Concise Oxford in 1914, America remained far ahead of England in dictionary making.” (Mencken, H.L. 1921: 4). Besides, in 1768, Benjamin Franklin wrote his Scheme for a New and Reformed Mode of Spelling in which he advocated the reform of the spelling system and preached the devising of a new alphabet. In 1889, The American Dialect Society was founded. Its purpose was to study the English language in North America and to determine the dialects that influence it or that may be influenced by it. In 1958, Albert H. Marckwardt published his American English in which he states that American and British English are two different varieties of the same English language and that there is “a close interaction of linguistic and cultural factors in the growth of American English.” (p. viii). Yet Mencken (1921) notes that it was Noah Webster who finally achieved the divorce between English example and American practice when, in 1782, he issued his Grammatical Institute of the English Language.

Such an awareness that American English is and should be different from British English has had its repercussion on American writings, media and communication in general. Moreover, worldwide, there has been a tendency among writers of textbooks intended for foreign

9. Lexicographer: a person who compiles dictionaries. English Oxford Living Dictionaries online.

learners to include references highlighting the differences between American and British English. In one of the Tunisian textbooks, for instance (Book 4, intended for fourth form
Learners: Baccalaureate students, in the introductory unit), students are asked to distinguish American English from other varieties of English language (see Book 4, question 2, p. 29).
And despite the presence of researchers who could see no particular importance in the use of present perfect time indicators with the simple past constructions (Hewings, 2005; Bergs and Pfaff, 2009; Defromont, 1973 and Vanneck, 1958: cited in Elseness, 1997), such a phenomenon remains utterly expressive and of real linguistic and cultural significance. In the American press, constructions that in British context would be regarded as odd, aberrant or even “erroneous”, have become familiar and ordinary. The sentences below are excerpts from American press to prove how “recently” has been introduced to sentences which in normal grammatical occurrences could only bear time adverbials expressing the past:
a- “The pop star recently got a fresh phone number and is instructing those to her not to share it with her ex-boyfriend Justin Bieber.” (Daily News: Wednesday, September 14, 2015).

b- “Recently, Anna launched a new petition asking Massachussetts congressman Jim Mc Govern to stop using one-use water bottles in his office.” ( / high – school – student – anna – hankins – on – plastics. March 18, 2013).

c- “On a recent sunny weekday…….the kids sat in a dark hut with a hay floor.” (Huffpost Tech (U.S): February 25, 2013).

In fact, The Longman Corpus of Spoken American English (LCSAE) corpora, (cited in ICAME Journal, pp. 53-54), point out that of all the temporal adverbials used with the simple past, “recently” seems to have the first position in frequency in around 50 °/° of utterances, thus keeping a prestigious position in spoken American English. The corpora also indicate a prestigious position for two other time adverbials used with the simple past.

They are “never” and “just”. Such a shift in the face of English, whether spoken or written, has its roots in how speakers view their language and what it represents to them. Syntax counts, and so do history and culture. Brown, H. D. (1994:165) finds the relationship between language and culture so intimate that “a language is a part of a culture and a culture is a part of a language; the two are intricately interwoven so that one cannot separate the two without losing the significance of either language or culture.” Language therefore changes, takes new, unusual aspects of practice sometimes, and rules are broken or maintained following the way people perceive themselves, their culture and their language.

To conclude

The question that this article tried to investigate is what may be the possible motivating factors for speakers to use a present perfect temporal adverb in contexts requiring the use of simple past temporal adverbs and whether this variation in the syntactic and semantic-pragmatic contexts might be the indication of an ongoing special attitude towards language and culture. The article also tried to demonstrate how each single word or expression in language is of paramount significance and how every single change or modification in the way people use language is worth reflection and analysis. The Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once said: “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” (cited in: T. R.Martland, 1976: 19 – 26); which means that a person’s language is the reflection of themselves they would like to send to the world around them and that one’s language defines one’s world.

Thanks to the questions that puzzled me regarding the adverbial “recently” and to the quest I led in search of convincing answers to them, I could measure to what extent syntactic structures and pragmatic functions are crucial to language users and how one adverbial could easily reflect the image they have of themselves and of others. I could also demonstrate that inserting “recently” in simple past constructs is not just a breakthrough from the boundaries of grammar; it is also the expression of an attitude toward language, history and legacy. Chalhoub – Deville and Tarone (1996: 5) precise: “The nature of the language proficiency construct is not constant, different linguistic, functional and creative proficiency components emerge when we investigate construct in different contexts.”


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