1

The situation is following:

A husband comes home after finishing at work. He wants to ask his wife about her day. How does he ask her?

  1. What have you been up to today?
  2. What did you do today?
  3. What were you doing today?

They all seem natural to me (maybe except the third one). What do you think?

  • 5
    I would simply say "How was your day?" – user3169 Aug 24 '17 at 18:55
  • Have you had a good day today? – Patricia Aug 24 '17 at 19:11
1

You are really asking two questions rolled into one.

There's the question of what is grammatically correct, and all of your examples are well-formed, grammatically speaking. They're even idiomatic, in that they are sentences that native English speakers might use.

The problem is, while they're idiomatic, for an awful lot of English speakers, they would be idiomatic for a hostile or suspicious interaction.

Your second, implicit, question is perhaps best stated, What question might a husband ask to solicit information from his wife about what she did that day?

This is really not an English language question, but an English language speakers culture question. Because here's the thing: very many people in English-speaking cultures would find directly being asked to account for their time to be rude. Not hugely rude, necessarily, but subtly disrespectful.

The conventional friendly way to express interest in how someone spent their day is to ask a question about how their day was – meaning whether they found it good or bad, agreeable or disagreeable – rather than asking what they did.

This is generally understood to be a prompt to disclose what details of how one spent one's day as one prefers to share, without pressuring one to account for oneself and one's time.

So it might look like:

Husband: And how was your day, today?

Wife: Ugh, the Throckmorton-Swift account turned out to be even more a fiasco than we thought, and I had to spend four hours in down in Accounting with that bozo, Jean, trying to find all the reports. Thank goodness the Veep of Sales took us out for consolatory beers after. How about you?

If you're wondering, "But, what if she just says, 'It was fine' and doesn't disclose any information...?!" that's the point: she's not being pressured to disclose, so she might very well not chose to disclose. That's why it's considered polite, where asking her point blank what she did is not.

This comes up in a big way in parent-child interactions. Parents can get away with asking their younger children "What did you do at school today?", but as they get older, typically in their teens, children begin to take offense at being asked point-blank like that. Hence the conventional – to the point of being a joke – teen response of, "Nothing". Parents often feel entitled to ask – because they feel entitled to know what their kid is up to – and are reluctant to ask the politer question, "How was your day?" because they don't want to be dismissed with a simple, "Fine."

  • Your answer is quite insightful! Thank you for being so thorough :-) – slovakgirl Aug 25 '17 at 17:18
2

The first question doesn't quite work. It can mean "What naughty behaviour have you been doing?". For example in Harry Potter, when Snape is suspicious of Harry he says "You want to be careful; people will think you're up to something". By which he means "People (like me) will think you are breaking the rules"

A parent might hear strange noises coming from their child's room, go and see them and ask "What are you up to?" This question is almost always asked rhetorically, not expecting an answer. It could be asked in a joking way, if the man and woman have that kind of relationship.

The other two questions are fine, and mean almost the same. The usual difference between the past and past continuous tenses applies.

However, There are lots of better ways to ask the question: "How was your day?" or "How has your day been?" are natural ways to ask this.

  • In AmE, up to can be neutral (What interesting thing have you been doing?) or it can imply, as you suggest, some sort of mischief (What have you been doing that you shouldn't have been doing?) – Tᴚoɯɐuo Aug 24 '17 at 20:36
  • I've made small edit to reflect this possibility – James K Aug 24 '17 at 20:45

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