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Recency illusion

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The recency illusion is the belief or impression, on the part of someone who has only recently become aware of a long-established phenomenon, that the phenomenon itself must be of recent origin. The term was coined by Arnold Zwicky, a linguist at Stanford University who is primarily interested in examples involving words, meanings, phrases, and grammatical constructions.[1] However, use of the term is not restricted to linguistic phenomena: Zwicky has defined it simply as, "the belief that things you have noticed only recently are in fact recent".[2]

According to Zwicky, the illusion is caused by selective attention.[2]


Linguistic items prone to the recency illusion include:

  • "Singular they": the use of "they," "them," or "their" to reference a singular antecedent without specific gender, as in "If George or Sally come by, give them the package." Although this usage is often cited as a modern invention,[3] it is quite old,[4][A] going back to the 14th century.[5][6]
  • The phrase "between you and I" (rather than "between you and me"), often viewed today as a hypercorrection, which could also be found occasionally in Early Modern English.[4]
  • The intensifier "really," as in "it was a really wonderful experience," and the moderating adverb "pretty," as in "it was a pretty exciting experience." Many people have the impression that these usages are somewhat slang-like, and have developed relatively recently.[citation needed] They go back to at least the 18th century, and are commonly found in the works and letters of such writers as Benjamin Franklin.
  • "Literally" being used figuratively as an intensifier is often viewed as a recent change, but in fact usage dates back to the 1760s.[7]
  • "Aks" as a production of African American English only.[citation needed] Use of "aks" in place of "ask" dates back to the works of Chaucer in Middle English, though typically in this context spelled "ax".[8]
  • The word "recency" itself. It is commonly used in consumer marketing ("analyze the recency of customer visits")[9] and many think it was coined for that purpose,[citation needed] but its first known use was in 1612.[10]

See also[edit]


A. Merriam Webster's Dictionary of English Usage noted, "Although the lack of a common-gender third person pronoun has received much attention in recent years from those concerned with women's issues, the problem, as felt by writers, is much older" (1989, page 901).


  1. ^ Rickford, John R.; Wasow, Thomas; Zwicky, Arnold (2007). "Intensive and quotative all: something new, something old". American Speech. 82 (1): 3–31. doi:10.1215/00031283-2007-001.
  2. ^ a b Zwicky, Arnold (7 August 2005). "Just between Dr. Language and I". Language Log. Retrieved 5 May 2015.
  3. ^ Mora, Celeste (May 12, 2020). "What Is the Singular They, and Why Should I Use It?". Grammarly blog. Grammarly. Retrieved July 9, 2021. Admittedly, using the singular they in a formal context may still cause some raised eyebrows, so be careful if you're submitting a paper to a particularly traditional teacher or professor. But the tides are turning, and English will soon be more efficient
  4. ^ a b Merriam Webster's Dictionary of English Usage. Merriam Webster. 1989. ISBN 978-0-87779-132-4.
  5. ^ The American Heritage Book of English Usage: A Practical and Authoritative Guide to Contemporary English. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 1996. ISBN 978-0-547-56321-3.
  6. ^ Pullum, Geoffrey (13 April 2012). "Sweden's gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun". Archived from the original on 8 May 2016. Retrieved 28 March 2023. ... our pronoun they was originally borrowed into English from the Scandinavian language family ... and since then has been doing useful service in English as the morphosyntactically plural but singular-antecedent-permitting gender-neutral pronoun known to linguists as singular they
  7. ^ Zimmer, Benjamin. "Literally: a history". Language Log.
  8. ^ Lippi-Green, Rosina (1997). English with an Accent: Language, Ideology, and Discrimination in the United States (2nd ed.). London: Routledge. ISBN 9780415559102.
  9. ^ root (14 February 2011). "Recency, Frequency, Monetary Value (RFM) Definition". Investopedia.
  10. ^ "recency". Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary.

Further reading[edit]