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Does the presence/absence of the definite article change anything? Or is it just the matter of preference whether to use it or not?

in letzter Zeit
in der letzten Zeit

The German-English Dictionary of Idioms by Hans Schemann and Paul Knight has this entry,

in der letzten Zeit - (eher:) in letzter Zeit(2;a.1) · recently

Does it mean that that the version without an article, i.e. in letzter Zeit is used more often?

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In my opinion, the entry of the dictionary absolutely states that both mean the same and "in letzter Zeit" is used more often ("eher"). – Matthias Jun 9 '14 at 0:47
1… – user6191 Jun 9 '14 at 3:37
Probably "eher" is used in the sense of "preferably/rather", not in terms of occurence. If indeed so, I agree. – user6191 Jun 9 '14 at 4:20
up vote 3 down vote accepted

There's only a very slight difference, if any. IMO, it's a matter of emphasis:

  • Without article, it's just a fuzzy chronological classification of the following statement - the exact chronological classification doesn't matter.

  • With article, there's a slight emphasis on the chronlogical reference - maybe to express a contrast to a previous statement:

„Früher hatte ich beim Treppensteigen keine Probleme. In der letzten Zeit aber komme ich schneller ins Schwitzen.“

Using „in letzter Zeit“ in this example would be completely ok, and with both sentences in context, everyone would understand the meaning. So, the difference is minimal.

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There is no difference between both.

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