I'm wondering what the semantic difference is between these sentences:

What have you expected?


What did you expect?

In both questions we are talking about the past, and both are translated into my native language identically.

3 Answers 3


The choice of tense here is somewhat restricted by the meaning of expect, which means to anticipate that something will happen. When we expect something, we believe it will happen; we await it.

When that which we expect to happen turns out to happen or to not happen, we no longer have the expectation. The expectation is abandoned either because now we know otherwise, or because what we expected to happen has indeed happened. When it has rained cats and dogs and our shoes are already ruined, we cannot expect them to get ruined. We cannot expect the 4PM train to be late if it is 4PM and the train has already arrived on time.

If we are speaking of an expectation as either an ongoing state of mind or as an abandoned state of mind, we do not use the present perfect with expect . If the expectation is abandoned, it is a thing of the past.

What did you expect?

What were you expecting?

If the expectation is ongoing, it is a thing of the present.

What do you expect?

What are you expecting?

Only when we wish to speak of the expectation as one that may be in transition from held belief to abandoned belief does expect hook up with the present perfect, though even then the two are awkward dancing partners.

What have you been expecting?

What have you expected?

What have you been believing?

What have you believed?

The present perfect could also be used to mean "things that I have believed over the course of my lifetime which I no longer believe, but I own to having believed them".

Have you expected Santa Claus to come down the chimney?

Have you expected the Tooth Fairy to leave money under your pillow?

Have you expected business partners to be honest and above-board?


In the first sentence "have expected" is present perfect simple, which is used for an action that started in the past and that action (or its effects) continued to the present and will probably continue into the future.

I have worked here since 2009.

This means that I started working here in 2009, am still working here and expect to continue doing so.

I have made a cake.

This means that I made the cake a little while ago, and here is is: the effects of making the cake still exist.

With the verb "expect", it has no effects, and if the expecting itself extends into the present, you would use the present continuous "What are you expecting?"- so the first sentence doesn't make sense.

When asking Wh- type questions for the past simple forms of a verb, we use did for all verbs except be and have. See section 4 of this.

Expect is the main verb in the second : it's not be or have, so the second sentence is a correct past simple construction:

What did you expect?

Past simple is used for a completed action: you expected something, then something different happened so you stopped expecting (the original thing).

  • 1
    So "What have you made?" would also be ungrammatical? Commented Mar 25, 2016 at 11:25
  • Also: "What have you done?"
    – Exerion
    Commented Mar 25, 2016 at 11:51
  • @Cowperkettle and Exerion: point taken. I have explained why "have expected" is not valid.
    – JavaLatte
    Commented Mar 25, 2016 at 12:48

First of all, the first sentence, using the present perfect, is not one that native English speakers (at least of American English) use much. It almost sounds wrong; but it isn't. It can be used, and there is nothing wrong with it grammatically or logically; we just find the use of the past simple (What did you expect?) and the present perfect continuous (What have been expecting?) to cover most situations that have expected could cover.

You say:

In both questions we are talking about the past

Well, yes and no. With the past simple (did expect or, in a statement, expected), the "action" of the verb takes place entirely in the past and, grammatically, it excludes present time (the moment of speaking).

What did you expect?

asks about the past action of expecting. It excludes present time. So, yes, here we are talking about the past. And you can ask it of any past time that excludes the present:

What did you expect earlier?
What did you expect yesterday?
What did you expect ten years ago?

It does not matter, grammatically speaking, if the person we are asking ('you') expects the same thing in the present or doesn't expect the same thing. We are not asking 'you' what she believes in the present or at the present moment. This asks only about the past. The person ('you') could have the same expectation now or the person could have changed her expectation, or the person could have no expectation in the present. It does not matter. So in this sense, the simple past excludes the present.

The present perfect, on the other hand, connects the past with the present, that is, with the moment of speaking.

Because we do not usually use expect in the present perfect (although, as I said, there is nothing wrong with doing so), let's first look at a different verb, make in the present perfect:

What have you made?

Here, the speaker is connecting the past with the present (also known as the present time, the moment of speaking, the present moment). It is the speaker who is making this connection to the present. The action of make could have taken place entirely in the past, but the speaker wants to connect this past action to the moment of speaking. He can not do this, grammatically, with the simple past (What did you make?), but he can do so with the present perfect.

Perhaps 'you' (let's call her Sue) spent all morning making a sand castle at the beach, and the speaker (Bob) asks about what she has made. Perhaps he doesn't know whether it is a castle or a palace or a fort. But he wants to connect Sue's past action of making whatever she made to the moment of speaking, so he asks What have you made? Perhaps he asks this because he is, at the moment of speaking, trying to figure out exactly what Sue has made. The object still exists, and Bob is connecting the past action to the present moment.

Note also that the present perfect can also be used for an "action" that is still going on at the moment of speaking. Whether this is the case is largely determined by context. What have you studied the past ten years? doesn't really tell us whether 'you' is still in the present studying this "what" or not. One has to rely on context and sometimes on how the person interprets the question or statement.

Now, if Bob wants to stress the duration of the action make, he could use the present perfect continuous:

What have you been making all morning?

Now, with the verb expect, native speakers (of American English) usually do not use expect in the present perfect. Don't ask me why. We just don't. Other than in most cases, it seems the past simple (did expect or expect) and present perfect continuous (have been expecting) suffice to cover most cases where the present perfect might be used.

However, we can, and it is grammatical to do do.

We could ask

What have you expected of Jim these past ten years? Perfection?


What have you expected regarding your project?

These use the present perfect, they are grammatical, and they are fine. Both questions connect the past with the present. Native speakers might prefer to use the present perfect continuous, just because the present perfect continuous usually (but not always) talks about an action that is still in progress at the moment of speaking.

But the preset perfect can also talk about an action that began in the past and is still happening at the moment of speaking

I've expected too much of Jim these past ten years (and I continue to do so).

In answer to the question What have you expected? here is a list of ten things that 'you' could have expected

They include

I have expected other people to want to resolve conflict in the same way I wanted to resolve it.


I have expected conflicts to be resolved quickly.

Since this is part of a self-inventory or self-examination, which can include present expectations, this is a perfect use of the present perfect with expect. And it does not indicate that the speaker no longer has these expectations.

For this last thing, that have expected can refer to an expectation that began in the past and that is still held at the moment of speaking, consider this passage from an older publication (written 1818) called Ascanius (full title: Ascanius, Or, the Young Adventurer: Containing an Impartial History of the Rebellion in Scotland in the Years 1745, 1746). It talks about a certain Lord Balmerino who is in prison in the Tower of London. His lady (wife) comes to visit him:

...She was at dinner with him [in the Tower] when the warrant came for his execution the Monday following, and being very much alarmed, he desired her not to be concerned at it; if the king had given me mercy, said he, I should have been glad of it; but since it is otherways, I am very easy; for it is what I have expected, and therefore it does not at all surprise me...

Balmerino talks about the "action" of expecting something that began in the past and continues to the present, the moment when he says his sentence.

Today we might say it is what I have been expecting. Note I think that the passage is in British English, and the present perfect is used in situations in which American English prefers the past simple, but that is another issue.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .