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I teach English to beginners and I usually begin the lesson by asking them how they spent their day. Many of them say "Oh, I worked all day today", and sometimes I hear "I was working today". Something about the first one doesn't feel right, but the second one seems OK, and I couldn't say why.

I would personally say "I've been working all day". Since I'm not really a native speaker, I have a hard time discerning all the subtleties in meanings.

closed as off-topic by FumbleFingers, michael_timofeev, user140086, tchrist, Hot Licks Feb 2 '16 at 3:46

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"I worked today" means that the person is now done working but worked earlier in the day. "I was working today" might mean the same thing but could also imply that the action was incomplete (e.g., "I was working today but we lost power at 2:00 so I had to go home.") "I've been working all day" implies that you are still working.

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In your question you say "I would personally say..."

How to answer "How did you spend your day?" is a personal matter and can't be addressed with grammar. What one speaker says is "OK" another will say "That sounds wrong to me."

On one level this has to do with the verb "work." In my opinion, this is a verb that has an activity aspect to it. It is not an accomplishment or achievement verb. This leads to interesting questions about whether it is OK to say "I worked" or "I was working." On one level "I worked on a project" is almost identical in meaning to "I was working on a project." In both instances, the person had to start, did the activity for a while, and then stopped. This isn't just needless quibbling...it's one of the main reasons why "I am owning a car." sounds wrong to native speakers...it's because of the internal sense they have about how a verb unfolds in time.

Where the Progressive tense makes sense is if you asked "What were you doing when I called?" Then, "I was working." makes sense and is distinct from the simple past.

As is always the case, the context and wording make a huge difference in which tense is more "appropriate."

If you ask an open question (to native or non-native speakers) you'll get varying answers. I don't know what your exact wording was. If you ask "What did you do today?" the "did" will "track" the answers into either simple past or past progressive. In my opinion, "I have worked today" or "I have been working today." isn't a good fit to the question.

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To speak truly, more than a few students who are native English speakers walk roughshod across English verb tenses. Your "I've been working all day" is what I would say, too. Usually I would say that at a time when, having begun work early in the morning, I am still working when I'm prompted by circumstance to speak. The present perfect tense expresses this situation, ah..., perfectly.

If one of my students made either of the first two statements, and if I were inclined to play the gruff, grammar-growling curmudgeon, I would reply with something to the effect of "So, does that mean that you are no longer working?" Simple past and past progressive tenses imply with varying degrees of certainty that the action described happened in the past, but is no longer happening.

Hence, "I worked all day today" suggests that the sun has dropped below the horizon and that it's time for everyone to have a root beer.

Meanwhile, "I was working today" suggests that work took place for a period of time, but has now concluded. Let's have some more root beer.

As I say, many children born and raised in the lap of the English mother tongue pay no heed to this issue. Those non-native speakers who try so carefully to sort it out deserve good wishes and support.

  • Let's have something stronger. Cheers! :-) – haha Feb 2 '16 at 2:07
  • @michael_timofeev - My sense of native speakers' behavior is somewhat limited to personal experience, I admit. After 40 years of teaching adolescents every day, I suppose I feel justified in expressing an opinion, albeit not one that is supported by rigorous scholarship. I'm trying to be helpful and supportive. If that's not the purpose of the board, please forgive a newcomer's mistake. – Rob_Ster Feb 2 '16 at 2:25

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