I have some problems with the present perfect continuous tense, as presented in Cambridge English Grammar in USE By Raymond Murphy.

It says:

We use the present perfect continuous for an activity that has recently stopped or just stopped. There is a connection with now.

What is the difference between the sense of the present perfect continuous and the simple present?

    • You're out of breath. Have you been working? (you're out of breath now)
    • Did you work? (simple present)
    • Why are your clothes so dirty? What have you been doing?
    • What did you do?
    • I've been working hard. Now I'm going to have a break.
    • I've worked now I'm going to have a break.
  • 3
    Your question seems quite general. For general help I suggest that you read the canonical post about the perfect. Note especially the different meaning that readers can extract from the usage of perfect. If you still have a specific question please state it. Commented Aug 13, 2016 at 13:31
  • Have you been reading that book?
    – TimR
    Commented Aug 13, 2016 at 16:55
  • When confused, go back to square one: You are out of breath. [are = Present Tense; so the person is asking in the present.] Now, turn the question into a statement to discover the subject and verb if anything: “You have been working.” Commented Sep 12, 2016 at 16:03
  • Remember, the Present Perfect can mean an action that occurred at some indefinite time in the past, or it can mean action started in the past and continues up to now. It looks like this: “You have worked.” However, the person asking does not want to know if the person worked in the past [“did you work”] the person is asking if the other person started working in the past and is still working (Present Perfect: Have you worked? (up to now) AND Commented Sep 12, 2016 at 16:04
  • continues to work, taking a break I guess, at least long enough to answer the question, with the Present Perfect Progressive (or Continuous) “You have been working.” = “Have you been working?” Commented Sep 12, 2016 at 16:04

1 Answer 1


I would have been able to comment had this still been in EL&U , where it should have remained because it's an interesting grammatical question, so you'll have to settle for a short answer.

Although "what have you been doing" may have a form whose name includes "perfect", the statement doesn't have a perfective aspect - because the questioner hasn't decided the person has finished doing whatever it was.

Wikipedia says

Perfective aspect is used in referring to an event conceived as bounded and unitary, without reference to any flow of time during ("I helped him"). Imperfective aspect is used for situations conceived as existing continuously or repetitively as time flows ("I was helping him"; "I used to help people").

Had the questioner concluded the activity was over, they would have used the perfective "What have you done?" Also be aware a statement like this can imply something bad was done, so the questioner might back off from the perfective to avoid sounding rude.

Some languages (e.g Polish) have completely different verbs to express perfective or imperfective aspect; in English we settle for progressive/continuous tone.

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