Someone has borrowed a dress and returns it dirty and torn.

Is there any difference in nuance between: "what have you been doing to my dress?" or "what have you done to my dress?" Can they both be used in this situation?

To me "what have you been doing" is asking "what have you been doing to get the dress so dirty and torn" whereas "what have you done" expresses the fact that I'm angry my dress is ruined. Am I correct?

  • No, you're not correct. The continuous form is only really likely if the "damage" appears to have been caused by doing something repeatedly and/or for an extended period of time. Thus the continuous form is inherently somewhat more "accusatory", because phrasing it that way implies the speaker isn't expecting / won't accept any kind of response based on It was an accident (because "accidents" are normally one-off actions that don't persist for long). Jun 21, 2021 at 12:36
  • @FumbleFingers: In the example "Have you been urinating in the parking lot?" ( Have you been doing something you shouldn't have?) the continuous can be used for an on-off action that doesn't necessarily last long . I don't understand the difference. See: ell.stackexchange.com/questions/272380/
    – anouk
    Jun 23, 2021 at 9:56
  • 1
    I'm not sure exactly why, but I think there's a tendency to use the continuous form when berating or accusing a child. Suppose I see that a bottle in my fridge door has toppled over and spilled - which I assume was caused by someone opening & closing the door carelessly. It seems to me I'm more likely to ask another adult the question Did you open the fridge door?, where I might ask a child Have you been opening the fridge door? (even though the activity isn't really "continuous" in either case). Jun 23, 2021 at 12:27
  • ...maybe it's down to subconscious stereotyping, as in naughty children are always being naughty, whereas adults (who've grown up enough to have a moral code) would only be likely to make occasional slip-ups. I dunno. Jun 23, 2021 at 12:32
  • @ FumbleFingers "opening and closing the door carelessly". Could that be once, opening and closing the door once?
    – anouk
    Jun 23, 2021 at 16:42

1 Answer 1


The nuance is about time, and whether the damage has already been done or is continuing.

"what have you been doing to my dress?"

Suggests the damage is ongoing and will continue – appropriate if they are still wearing the dress.

"what have you done to my dress?"

Suggests the damage already happened – appropriate if the dress is returned in poor condition.

These are only nuances, and both versions could be used interchangeably.

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