Could you answer my question?

1) I haven't smoked for years.
2) I haven't been smoking for years.

In Raymond Murphy's book English Grammar in Use with Answers. A Self-Study Reference and Practice Book for Intermediate Learners of English (ex:11.1(9) The answer is No. 1 Why is
I haven't been smoking for years, not possible?

Could you please explain? Can I use the present perfect continuous negative with period of time: for 2 weeks, for years etc? And not with the verb to smoke but also with other verbs.


4 Answers 4


The perfect progressive in the negative with a specified period of time is certainly grammatical and is used: "I haven't been running for the past 2 hours". The catch is that this usually requires some context. In this case you usually want to negate something that is being said or assumed: "I haven't been playing for the past 2 hours, I was doing my homework"

Lets simplify the 'for years' and look at the positive version: "I have been smoking during the last 30 days" - this implies that you started and never stopped (continuous action).

If we negate that it means that you have not been smoking for the past 30 days. While perfectly grammatical, this is ambiguous since it could be interpreted in at least 2 ways: "I have not been smoking during the last 30 days, but I have been smoking during the last 29 days" or "I have not been smoking during the last 30 days, I have been chewing gum instead" (i.e. "I stopped smoking 30 days ago and have not smoked at least until the time when the phrase is uttered")

This means that if you want to unambiguously say that you stopped smoking 1 month ago you say "I haven't smoked during the last month" (or "I haven't smoked for years")

As per WS2's answer there are also phrases like 'I haven't been swimming for years'. This is another use-case where the verb "to be" is replacing the verb "to go": "I haven't gone swimming for years" / "I haven't gone to swim for years"


That form of perfect continuous tends to be reserved for expressions like 'I haven't been swimming for years'. You could also say 'I haven't swum for years', but that would be less usual, and mean something slightly different.

We don't 'go smoking' in the way we 'go swimming'. But we do 'go walking', and 'go fishing'. With those sorts of verbs you can use the perfect continuous negative example. 'I haven't been fishing for years'.

  • 2
    I think you're right that the 'go fishing' (phase structure) verbs, with their peculiar coupling with been, add a complication. 'I haven't been to the pictures for years' seems an analogous construction. But it's not the whole story: 'The train hasn't been running for several weeks now'. Apr 10, 2014 at 7:44

Picture a timeline with actions on it. The only point in motion is the present. Only present actions are alive: past ones are dead and future ones, unborn.

Therefore, it makes sense to use the present perfect in the continuous to describe an action having started before the time of speaking and still going on at the time of speaking: present perfect continuous. With the continuous, you witness an action unfolding itself.

I have been saving money lately.

But then, if the action verb is in the negative, it can have two different meanings:

  1. either the absence of any action,

  2. or the implied presence of the contrary action.

In the first case, it would not make much sense to express a non-action in the continuous, paradoxically giving life to a non-entity.

I have not saved any money lately. * I have not been saving any money lately. *

Whereas, in the second case, it does make sense, because a real action – the contrary action – is meant.

I have not been saving money lately. (= I have been blowing money lately. / I have been spending wildly.)


Well, I might find it difficult to support a position that seems rather easy to undermine. For here's two counterexamples:

A: "Have you been smoking recently?"

B: "Nope, I haven't been smoking for years."


A: "I heard you haven't been smoking for quite a while, is that right?"

B: "That's right, I haven't been smoking for the last two years."

Both sets of exchanges sound natural to me, an AmE speaker.

Context is king.

Maybe, in Raymond Murphy's book, the actual question might be important? Perhaps the author wanted the context established by the question? And so:

Author's question/context is XXXXX

Response is one of the below:

  • 1) I haven't smoked for years.

  • 2) I haven't been smoking for years.

Did the author provide a context for that response?

Anyway . . .

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