I missed my literature class today and I am calling my friend to find out what they were discussing (or discussed?) in class. My goal (as a speaker) is to find out what was in class today, so I can catch up

Which tense should I use:

  1. What did Mr.Smith speak about in class today?
  2. What was Mr. Smith speaking about in class today?
  1. Are both idiomatic in this context?
  2. Don't you think that "complete action" from number 1 sounds a bit odd? (because in my native language it does)

P.S. Mr. Smith is our supposed teacher

P.P.S. I am asking this because in my first language when we use the perfective aspect (basically, a verb form that conveys a completed action with the emphasis on completion, kinda similar to past simple) many verbs don't sound right, like "speak" in this context. They sound too "short" or "quick" as if the teacher's act of speaking happened in a few seconds. I wonder if it sounds ok in English?

  • 1
    The first is more natural than the second, but the second is also fine. Better than both would be What did Mr. Smith talk about in class today? The use of the verb speak here is less common. Jun 29, 2020 at 13:45
  • Thanks. And a follow-up question: Is it true that in this context "was speaking" conveys the idea that "speaking" started at the start of the lesson and lasted until the end of the lesson? While if we use "speak/talk" it means it just occurred somewhere (at some point) during the class? Jun 29, 2020 at 13:59
  • 1
    No, speaking doesn't not necessitate an unbroken series of speech from the start of the lesson to the end. That would be highly unusual. Nor does speak necessitate that didn't happen. Neither word means that the speech lasted longer or more continuously than the other. Jun 29, 2020 at 14:05
  • 2
    No, it doesn't. Which is what I said in my last comment. (1) I was speaking to the class about evolution this morning[, but I stopped after 5 minutes because nobody was interested]. (2) I spoke to the class about evolution this morning [for the entire hour]. Jun 29, 2020 at 14:22
  • 1
    See this discussion. To the extent that there is a difference between What did you do yesterday? and What were you doing yesterday?, it's that the continuous version emphasizes the TIME-PERIOD, rather than the ACTION. So maybe you'd be more likely to say What did you do to get that bruise? and What were you doing to get so tired? rather than the other way around. Jun 29, 2020 at 14:46


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