EN: what are you / were you / have you been doing?



i do have some hesitations about the use of the present perfect.

1) For example, I come in a room, run into somebody, I want to ask him about is activity. I have to say "what are you doing ?" if he still does it and "what have you been doing ?" if he stopped (has stopped ?), right ? What's the différence with "What were you doing ?", I can't see anyone, both mean that he is not doing the activity anymore.

2) I come back home on the night and ask my wife about her activity of the day, should I say "what have you been doing today" or "what did you do today" ? I think i have to use the present perfect because today isn't finished yet but, actually, i'm not sure at all.

Thanks :)
  • Tim~!

    Senior Member
    UK — English
    1) What are you doing? applies to now, such as when you come into the room because you're curious to know why I'm making so much noise. What were you doing? suggests that the activity has stopped, that you're referring to something earlier.

    2) Normally a time phrase means you would prefer What did you do XX? This would certainly be the case if XX were this morning, yesterday, last year.

    However, the choice of today changes things, because it's not limiting you to something which has passed. Because today is still the present you can actually use both expressions without a problem.


    English - USA
    Hello, Nae. :)

    1.) "What are you doing?" could sound like an accusation, because it could imply that you believe the person has no business in that room, or that you have caught the person doing something strange/suspicious just as you walk in. Of course, tone is very important. The question is not accusatory in and of itself. If the person is obviously working on some project, but you cannot tell what it is, then you could ask this question in a perfectly friendly way -- assuming that you know the person well enough to ask this without seeming too nosey.

    "What have you been doing?" implies shared knowledge of recent events. Perhaps you are the boss, and you are asking for a progress report about the things your employee has worked on since the last meeting. Perhaps you know the person has been waiting for you, and you are asking how he has occupied the time. Perhaps this is a friend you spoke with two or three days before, who has come to visit your town as a tourist, and who has been visiting the sites since you last spoke with him on the phone to arrange this meeting. Etc.

    "What were you doing?" could again sound like an accusation, as if you had the impression that the person was doing something strange/suspicious just before you walked in, and that he stopped when he heard you coming.

    --> Because of the potential for implied accusation, it would be better if you told us your objective in asking the person you meet about his activities. Then we could suggest a safe sentence, possibly using verb that is more specific than "to do."

    2.) If you come home in the evening and want to ask your wife about her day, I definitely prefer "What did you do today?" or "How was your day?" using the preterit, because it is the end of the day and you are effectively asking for a summary. However, a more casual formulation, changing the verb but essentially the same question, uses the present perfect: "So what have you been up to today?"

    I hope it helps. :)



    thank you for answers.

    At school, we learnt that we have to use the present perfect for "action in the past that has consequences in the present" and "action began in the past and still in progress". But there are definitely more uses of this tense.

    I've got an other question, this time about the use of the present perfect continuous. We often hear that the use of this tense means this action is still in progress, but I think it's not true, maybe i'm wrong. Does it mean that the action is still in progress even if we don't use for / since ?

    For example, if I say "I have worked here" I use the present perfect in order to show that since i have already worked here I know this place. But if I say "I have been working here" does it mean something different ? Does it mean i still work here although I don't use for or since ?
    And if I say "I have been studying english mainly t by myself' mean I'm still learning it ? This is the same construction as "I have been working her", however, for me, the 1st one means I still study english while the 2nd means I don't work here anymore but telling about an experience.

    This tense is definitely making me crazy :(
    Last edited:


    Senior Member
    Hi there --

    "I have been working here" definitely indicates that the action has been continuous in the past and is viewed from the context of the present, such as "I have been eating at this place for years."

    But there is a subtlety though that probably prompts your question. You can also easily say "I have been eating here until today." The action has recently stopped and is being referred to from a present time context.

    If the continued over time and clearly ended in the past AND you wish to indicate something is different about the present, then the past form would be indicated:
    "I had been eating here until I got food poisoning." You are indicating a present time perspective on a past action where the action that clearly finished in the past and thus you want to indicate a clear rupture with the present.

    "I have worked here" just indicates a truth about the past. There is a possible continuation into the present. We don't know -- you're not saying anything about the present. (You may have stopped working there just yesterday or last week or ten years ago.)
    "I have been working here" indicates a present time perspective onto a past action that is clearly continuing today. You are viewing the action as still happening.

    "I have studied English by myself" is a simple statement of fact - past, but can possibly be continuing. We dont know for sure if you've stopped. If you say "I have studied English by myself for ten years" then it is probably continuing. What is sure is a present time perspective on the past.
    "I have been studying English by myself" indicates a present time perspective onto a past action that is without a doubt continuing today.

    Notre drôle de langue...! J'espère que ça aide.