“- Why are your hands so dirty?

  • I have been fixing the car”.

Why does this sentence use present perfect continuous instead of present perfect?

  • Because the focus is on what you've been doing, which would explain your dirty hands, not on the car's state of repairedness. To say "I have fixed the car" would talk about something that is completed, whereas the question wants to know about an activity. Commented Dec 11, 2023 at 13:33
  • Why are your fingernails so dirty? A. Because I have been gardening. B. Because I have planted a rosebush. Commented Dec 11, 2023 at 13:41

1 Answer 1


Why are your hands so dirty?

This question calls for a reason. If the hands became dirty at a single point of time, you would expect the simple past tense or present perfect. If the hands became dirty gradually during a process, you would expect the past progressive tense (past continuous?) or the present perfect continuous.

In this circumstance, we would expect that fixing a car would dirty the hands over time, not suddenly. The only choices would then be:

  1. Because I was fixing the car.


  1. Because I have been fixing the car.

The two sentences say the same thing, but the use of the present perfect continuous indicates a stretch of time leading up to the present, or at least something so recent that nothing of significance has happened between the event and the present.

Sentence number 1 would allow the questioner easily to follow up by saying: "But why didn't you wash your hands afterwards?" The responder would have to clarify whether the timing had allowed the possibility or not. Statement number 2 already implies that no significant time has passed since working on the car.

You also could have answered something like:

  1. Because I stuck my hands in that oil drum to retrieve my old tools.


  1. Because I've stuck my hands in that oil drum to retrieve my old tools.

In this case, the hands became dirty suddenly, requiring you to express a point in time with either the simple past or the present perfect.

In American English, sentence 3 is much more likely, since this sentence does not express a stretch of time and so cannot easily be thought to extend into the present. In American English, it appears to describe a state in which your hands are still inside the drum at the time of speaking. I think in British English, however, sentence 4 is common if you just want to emphasize that the event is recent.

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