Time expressions, adjectives and adverbs

Min from South Korea writes:

I'd like to know the difference between lately and recently. My dictionaries say they are almost the same, but I guess there's a slight difference, isn't there?

Aston Ndosi from Tanzania writes:

Please assist by explaining to me the difference in use between prompt and punctual.

S. Rajandran from India writes:

I would like to know the difference between instantaneous and simultaneous.

Roger Woodham replies:
  Recently / lately - late

There is a slight difference in use between recently and lately (see below) but note that the adverb late is quite different in meaning from lately: its opposite is early. Compare the following:

  • The supermarket has recently opened a new superstore outside town (= a short time ago)

  • I haven't been to the theatre recently / lately. (= over the last few weeks or months)

  • My health hasn't been too good recently / lately - I've hardly been out at all.

  • I arrived late for the performance and couldn't get in.

  • It's a good idea to arrive early so that you have time for a drink before the show starts.

Promptly - punctually - on time - in time

If you arrive punctually, you arrive at the right time, neither late nor early - you arrive on time. Punctually is normally used with the verb arrive, but promptly, which means without delay, is used with other verbs (see below and note the position of promptly in these sentences. In time has a slightly different meaning from on time. If you do something in time, you do it with time to spare - before the last moment. Compare the following:

  • He sat down to watch the television programme and promptly fell asleep.

  • He sat down to watch the television programme and fell asleep straightaway.

  • I received his letter a week ago and I replied promptly to it.

  • I received his letter a week ago and I replied to it immediately.

  • He was saved from falling overboard by the prompt action of the skipper.

  • My guest arrived punctually at seven o' clock, as I expected. He's always very punctual.

  • The train left exactly on time. The show started exactly on time.

  • I didn't get to the house in time. They had already left.

  • We're in plenty of time. We can have a coffee. There's no need to go in now.

Instant(ly) - instantaneous(ly)

If something happens instantly it happens immediately. If something happens instantaneously it also happens immediately but at the same time very quickly. Instantaneous and instantaneously are used only in a restricted range of contexts (see below):

  • The Beatles songs are instantly recognisable - everybody seems to know them.

  • When I saw Barbara crying I knew instantly what was wrong.

  • Death was instantaneous for all the people in the car when the bomb exploded.

  • The airbags for the driver and front seat passenger inflate instantaneously on impact in a head-on collision.

Simultaneously - at the same time

If things happen simultaneously, they happen at the same time. Note that simultaneous is used in more formal contexts than at the same time (see below):

  • The two-minute silence in memory of the famous footballer was observed simultaneously on all the football grounds in England.

  • The shots were fired simultaneously and three of them hit their target.

  • We arrived at the same time. I arrived at the same time as Judy.

In informal and semi-formal registers, at the same time can also be used to connect ideas between sentences. It introduces a statement that slightly changes or contradicts the previous statement. Simultaneously cannot be used in this way. Compare the following:

I admired her for her courage in the face of such adversity. At the same time, I was slightly afraid of her. (NOT: Simultaneously I was slightly afraid of her.)

Cities are becoming more and more crowded. At the same time, people are using their cars less and less in city centres. (NOT: Simultaneously people…)

Note from the all of the above examples that time adverbs which indicate a definite point or period in time are usually, though not always, placed in end position in the clause.


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