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What should I use when I want to say that someone is taking too long? I have seen different ways and I don't know which of these I should use.

At the moment of speaking

What takes you so long?

Why does it take you so long?

 Past action

What took you so long?

Why did it take you so long?

So can I say:

Why do girls take so long to get ready? or What takes girls so long to get ready?

Sorry but I couldn't come up with better examples. It will be great if you can help me. Thank you!

  • OP, I have edited my answer with regard to "what" vs. "why". (Not sure if SE notifies you when an answer you've already accepted gets edited.) – tenebris2020 Feb 3 '18 at 15:42
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Ngrams clearly show that "what is taking you so long" is probably your best bet for the situation at the moment of speaking.

(I had to shorten the phrase because ngrams can't be more than 5 words. I presume that the results for "takes you so long" mainly pertain to situation when it regularly takes someone too long to do something (which is the default use of Present Simple), e. g., "I'd love to have you help me, but it usually takes you so long."

So when you are speaking about a specific situation that is in progress right now, you should use Present Continuous: "what's taking you so long".

But your sentence

Why do girls take so long to get ready?

implies that it usually, regularly takes them too long. Present Simple is the correct tense to use in this situation.

Regarding "what" vs "why", I'd say they are more or less interchangeable when we are speaking in the moment. In the "girls usually take longer" example, the specific reason (what) can be very different (can't find the dress; messed up her makeup and has to re-do it; grabbed a bag and its handle broke, so she had to fix the handle; etc. etc. etc.).

"What" usually implies that you are asking for a specific reason. So it would be more often used "in the moment". "Why" usually invites philosophizing about some general trends in someone's speed of preparation. That is why, semantically, in your example about girls (where Present Simple is used), "why" is a better choice.

In your first two sentences, both "why" and "what" could be appropriate (with "why" being sort of a "You always take so long, and you are now taking too long, too, WHY OH WHY?" question; and "what" asking about a specific reason), but you need to use Present Continuous.

  • I'm not sure your NGram really tells us much about OP's specific context. For example, Google Books claims that Why are you taking so long? is more common than What is taking you so long? – FumbleFingers Feb 3 '18 at 15:29
  • @FumbleFingers But your examples both use Present Continuous. The OP's question (and my answer) are about comparative usage of Present Simple and Present Continuous. Not sure what your comparison (that only differs in "what" vs. "why") is supposed to prove. – tenebris2020 Feb 3 '18 at 15:31
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    @FumbleFingers, aha, the OP did in fact ask about what vs why. I'll edit accordingly. Thanks. – tenebris2020 Feb 3 '18 at 15:33
  • For what it's worth, Why did it take you so long? is significantly more common than Why did you take so long? But there are many ways of asking questions like this, and many different contexts. Personally, I more than suspect that the most common context for What took you so long? is in fact when it's a "rhetorical question" (speaker isn't really looking for an answer - simply complaining that addressee was too slow in doing something). – FumbleFingers Feb 3 '18 at 15:43
  • @FumbleFingers this is again a different issue: of "it takes you to" vs. "you take to..."; which is a case similar to "I don't scare easily" vs. "I don't get scared easily", or "Different grounds of salt pack differently". And yes, I guess both phrases can be used just to complain. In the "girls usually do" (not the past tense, like you are mentioning now), I do think "why" would be a better way to phrase it because it really is about philosophizing. – tenebris2020 Feb 3 '18 at 15:52

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