Last, the last, the past: differences

Mixing up last and the last when speaking about time can lead to misunderstandings, so English learners should be careful about how they use them. Let’s look at the difference in meaning between last and the last.

Use last before a specific past time reference

Last

We use last before a past time reference such as Monday, week, month, August, etc. We say:

  • last week
    the week before this week
  • last Monday
    Monday of last week
  • last year
    If we're in 2014 now, last year is 2013.
  • last January
    This is January of last year. If we're in April 2015 now, then January 2015 is in January, and January 2014 is last January.
We don't use past in the same way.
past January
past week

Use the last before an unfinished period of time

The last, the past

We use the last and the past before an unfinished period of time. They both have the same meaning.

  • in the last / the past week
    If today is Tuesday, this means the period from Tuesday last week up until now.
  • in the last / the past year
    If it's February 2015 now, this means the 365 days from February 2014 until today.
Because the time period is unfinished, we use the present perfect tense with the past and the last:

He's had two new cars in the last / in the past three years.

It's been too hot the last / the past few days. I hope it cools down soon.

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