8

When I'm in a discussion with someone and then someone interrupts us and then I forgot what I said and want to continue from the point where I stopped, is it correct to say:

What was I saying?

or is it:

What did I say?

And does this work in the second person, as well? For example, if I forgot what the person who was with me said, can I say:

What were you saying?

or is it:

What did you say?

  • You may also say- Where were we? – Ramit Sep 24 '13 at 12:04
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If you've forgotten what you said earlier, it's “What was I saying?”.

“What did I say?” has a completely different meaning. It is used when you notice the other person reacting in a strange way, and that question really means “You're reacting strangely, I think this is due to something I said, please explain to me which of my words caused you to react like this and why.” Sometimes the person asking this has genuinely forgotten what they said, but often they do remember but don't understand the reaction (or they're pretending not to).

If you've forgotten what the other person has said, you can ask “What were you saying earlier?” or “What did you say, again?” (or other variations). Neither sentence feels completely natural in this meaning without an adverb, though they aren't actually wrong.

“What did you say?” could also mean that you didn't understand what the person say, and with no other clues that's how I would understand it if I heard it.

— I think that [noise of an airplane going by] — I'm sorry, what did you say?

When there is no apparent risk of interruption, it can also be a way to express surprise or disagreement with what was said.

— I don't like this painting.
— What did you say? That's my masterpiece! Why are you so unsupportive?

“What were you saying?” works best when there is some other context: “Whew, we got rid of the interruption. Now, what were you saying?” It can also have another meaning: when you've done something that changes the situation, and you think that what the person said no longer applies. It is common to shorten this to “You were saying?”.

— I don't like this painting.
[throws the painting away] — There. You were saying?

0

There's rather a nice chart about verb tenses at our sister site, ELU. Do have a look at it. The chart makes statements rather than asks questions, but the constructions are much the same.

What was I saying corresponds to "I was eating" in that chart. It relates to a continuous period up to a point in the past when you stopped doing whatever it was (saying or eating). The use of the participle ending -ing indicates the continuity.

What did I say corresponds to "I ate" in the chart. It relates to a specific point in the past when you said something (or ate something).

You can use the same questions about anyone: "What were you saying?" "What did he say?" They all share the same spots on the timeline, asking either about a period up to a defined point in time, or a single moment.

[I'm using an iPad and can't copy the chart into this answer.]

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