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As we know the TENSES of English can be rather confusing for learners this is why I have decided to come up with a spectacular example using a made-up context which ought to help us see how the tenses involved work.

Imagine a situation. A person had worked at the office for 6 years and, say, on the 3 of March 2006 at 10 AM he was officially dismissed. But he was given one extra hour (until 11 AM) to collect his articles and say goodbye to his colleges. On the same day at 10.05 AM a new worker came to take his post over and he asked about the time having been spent by the old worker here. What tenses would fit for this situation? Let me give you my versions.

I think that the following TENSES are possible: (Do you agree?)

New Worker asks at 10.05 AM:

a) How long did you work here?

B) How long were you working here?

C) How long had you been working here until today?

D) How long had you worked here until today?

Is there any significant difference in subtleties between those four?

I also wonder whether it would be OK to use the Present Perfect in such a situation.

E) How long have you worked here?

I don’t feel comfortable with it, though. What do you think?

As for the answer of the old worker. I think that the TENSES used in the questions are OK. However, I am considering other options which I am not sure about.

F) I have been working here for the last 6 years. (Would it be correct to say it at 10.05 AM or is it only OK to say before 10.00 AM? Remember that he was dismissed at 10.00)

G) I was working here for the last 6 years. (I think it’s wrong. Do you agree?)

  • How long did you work here is okay. No problem in that. As compared to years an extension of an hour is trivial! No need to specify that. I served this company for six years will convey the message that he's not anymore in the company (or else, it could have been - I have been serving this company for past six years.) – Maulik V Mar 10 '14 at 6:50
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A. Working took place in the past. (A period of time is implied, of course, since you had to work for a period of time, but that fact isn't specified in this tense usage.)
B. Similar to A, but working took place over an unspecified period of time in the past.
C. Working took place over a period of time in the past. The tense specifies that there is a time also in the past that the period ended. (In your sentence, "until" is the wrong preposition; "before" is correct. Also, "before today" must imply "before your termination today"--which it does--to be correct.)
D. Working took place over an unspecified period of time in the past. My answer to C also applies here.
E. The person is still working here, and you want to know when he started. This isn't consistent with your scenario, so presumably that's why you don't feel comfortable with it. :)
F. It would be correct if the person isn't yet seeing his employment as being in the past. ("I have been working here for six years, and I'll be darned if I give up my job without a fight." would be an obviously correct usage, for example.) Once the person understands himself to be terminated, he had been working here for six years (when he was terminated).
G. Yes, I agree. "for the past six years" (or more often "for the last six years") should be used as "I have been working here for the past six years."

  • So which are the most suitable for that context in your opinion? – user1425 Mar 10 '14 at 16:21
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    Let's assume that the person is upset about being dismissed. "How long did you work here?" is rather neutral, since it avoids mention of when the work terminated. "How long have you been working here?" conveys a bit of sympathy, a sort of shared refusal to acknowledge that the dismissal has happened. Which it hasn't until 11, this tense points out. "How long had you been working here?" is rather the opposite, implying an additional "before you were dismissed" and making it quite clear that the person is now no longer working here. So, it depends. :) – BobRodes Mar 11 '14 at 19:24
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I will try to justify my answers in terms of the uses of each tense:

A. How long did you work here?

This one uses simple past (did) and is OK, because simple past simply states the work happened at some point in the past.

B. How long were you working here?

This one uses continuous past (were working) and is also OK for two reasons: the work happened in the past and the verb work admits the continuous aspect (it is possible to say I'm working). Not every verb admits the continuous aspect, for example, it is not possible to say I'm knowing

C. How long had you been working here until today?

D. How long had you worked here until today?

I think this ones feel a bit clunky. I think the reason for this clunkiness is that "until today" clashes with the use of past perfect tense (continuous or not). A past perfect tense is used to talk about a past event that happened before another past event. We know from the context that "working" took place before being dismissed that day at 10am. However, this question only highlights "until today", it doesn't mention the event of being dismissed.

In short, the context makes this question correct, but the combination "until today" and "past perfect" feels clunky.

E. How long have you worked here?

F. I have been working here for the last 6 years.

These ones use the continuous present perfect tense. The present perfect tense is used to talk about an action that has happened at an unspecified time in the past but has a connection to the present. Thus, if this question is asked only 5 minutes after being dismissed, the connection to the present is still there. However, there will be a time at which the connection with the present is lost and then the choice of present perfect would be wrong.

G. I was working here for the last 6 years.

Here I disagree. This reply is using continuous past (was working) and thus it indicates that the action (working) happened in the past but it doesn't continue in the present.

However, the same arguments as those applied for E and F could be used here to justify the use of continuous present perfect (I have been working) provided the link with the present has not been lost.

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