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I have been debating with my wife (she is American) over the correct use of each phrase. She doesn't know anything about grammar and also grew up with a lot of immigrants so she suggested I just post and ask.

When and how should I use each phrase apart form the grammatical guidelines of a specific/unspecific time?

For example could one be more polite/rude or do they suggest something else, e.g. the person was waiting all day or just for a few minutes?

Could I say 'What were you doing last week' because I'm interested in what they were doing or should I say what have you been doing last week to sound more polite which in turn would contradict the rule of not using a specific time with 'have been' since 'last week' is a specific time, or should I ask 'What did you do last week?'

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    "What were you doing last week?" sounds like a cross-examination. "What did you do last week?" is better, and "What have you been doing since we last met?" even more so. In the UK, we would probably say "What have you been up to?" – Mick Dec 29 '16 at 7:29
  • @Mick What if you were looking for someone last week and they were nowhere to be found, what would you say ' Where have you been last week' or 'Where were you last week'? I've heard both and these constructions ' Where have you been the whole last week' and 'Where have you been all week last week' – Chris Dec 29 '16 at 7:35
  • Both are good. It really depends on how well you know the person. – Mick Dec 29 '16 at 7:37
  • @Mick My point is that apparently, I could say ' Where have you been yesterday' even if it contradicts any grammar rule just because it is more polite. I basically just want to confirm if this is accurate. What do you think? – Chris Dec 29 '16 at 7:41
  • "Where have you been yesterday?" is grammatical, but could be construed as being very impolite. When I asked a colleague (and friend) a similar question, I got the answer: "I went to see a man about a dog." (Mind your own business.) She later told me that she had been for a pregnancy test. – Mick Dec 29 '16 at 7:43
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I agree with those in the comments, that using "What [were you]/[have you been] doing?" is much more likely to be interpreted by the recipient as rude, or at least intrusive. I can't think of a situation in which I would use either of these phrases unless I was essentially accusing someone of doing something they shouldn't have been.

If I'm interested in what someone has been doing, instead of saying "What were you doing last week?", I might say "What did you get up to last week?", although if the last time I spoke to them was much more than a week ago and there's no specific reason why last week was important, then I'd probably just say "What have you been up to?".

Disclaimer: I'm a native UK English speaker, so some of the above might be a little regional to the UK. I have spent a fair bit of time in the US and understand a decent amount of their regional variations, but I'll let a native US English speaker fill in the gaps if necessary.

  • I asked in another forum and some said that you can't even use the construction ' What have you been doing yesterday' because a specific time needs the simple past. But if the simple past is really rude there is nothing else to say. I'm extremely confused.My wife says both can be rude depending on the attitude and she doesn't object to 'Where have you been yesterday' but again, she grew up with a lot of immigrants. Her spoken and written English is pretty decent, though, as she is a Ph.D. and needs to write and present a lot but she is really bad at judging just by the grammar. – Chris Dec 29 '16 at 10:38
  • There seems to be no consensus. Some say 'where were you' needs a second action that happened at the same time, as in ' Where were you/what were you doing yesterday when tried to call you?' but I can't use the present perfect or present perfect continuous either because 'yesterday' is a specific time. It's extremly confusing. – Chris Dec 29 '16 at 10:41
  • I can see how it would be confusing for non-native speakers, I certainly can't describe the exact "rules" around this if there are any, but I can tell you what sounds right to me and what doesn't. "What have you been doing yesterday?" doesn't sound right to me - it would need to be "What were you doing yesterday?" or something like "What have you been doing? I tried to call you yesterday and couldn't reach you.". – 3N1GM4 Dec 29 '16 at 10:47
  • It is wrong because 'have been' suggests it's an unspecific amount of time whereas the simple past refers to a specific amount of time, e.g. 'yesterday. But the answers under my post show that some native speakers don't think ' Where have you been yesterday' sounds wrong, including my wife. This is where it gets confusing for me. – Chris Dec 29 '16 at 11:14
  • It's a matter of etiquette rather than language. If someone says "We went for a drive yesterday," then "Where did you go?" is fine. Likewise, if someone says "I took a day off yesterday," then "What did you do?" is equally good. You need permission to enquire, and that is a matter of judgement. In my previous example, I did not have permission to enquire, hence the rebuke. – Mick Dec 29 '16 at 13:10
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I think you could say either "What were you doing last week?" or "What had you been doing in the last week?"

To be more polite, you could say:

By the way, what were you doing last week? By the way, what had you been doing in the last week?

May I ask you/Could you tell me what you were doing last week/what you had been doing in the last week?

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