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A recent question on the English Language Learners Stack Exchange concerned the use of the phrase "have been knowing" (as opposed to "have known"). While the latter is standard in American and British English, the former is (apparently) common in Indian and Bangladeshi English. Apparently,

There is a regional preference there [i.e. South Asia] for the past continuous tense of the verb (been knowing for known.)

(original source for this quote here, cited in the comments under the linked ELLSE question.)

Reading this question and response motivated me to ask about a related usage issue that I have been wondering about for some time. I have noticed that many of my international students (I teach in the Dept. of Mathematics at a University in the midwestern United States) will say or write sentences like "Do we have to show our working?", whereas I would expect "Do we have to show our work?" This usage ("working" as a noun in places where I would use "work") also commonly shows up on the Math StackExchange.

Presumably, this is another instance of different dialects of English preferring different forms of a word, but it doesn't seem to be exactly the same regional preference discussed above, as in this context "working" is not the past continuous form of a verb, but rather a gerund.

In what varieties of English is this usage common? Is this a case of a more general phenomenon (for example, does the same regional preference exist for "Did you enjoy your traveling?" instead of "...your travel?"), or is there something unique about "work"/"working"?

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  • That is the sort of thing that happens when languages change one place and not another. Who knows how mutually understandable "English" will be in a couple hundred years? If there are any speaker left, that is. May 25 at 23:30
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    @mweiss The construction "Do we have to show our working?" is so uncommon in American English ( and too on the old sod) that it would be considered illiterate. However, "Did you enjoy your traveling?" doesn't strike my ear as wrong. Gerunds are slippery creatures.
    – Zan700
    May 25 at 23:58
  • By the way, I wonder why people ask questions about what dialect or variety something occurs in. What kind of answer do they expect, and how would knowing the answer change anything? May 26 at 1:20
  • They are trying to help others who learned English in countries where English is not the primary language. Imagine an Indian or Pakistani who is applying for a job in the U.S. or writing a technical manual for U.S. consumption. The OP, for example, teaches at a U.S. University. If an international student writes a paper using the "working" construction, the OP would guide the student toward the common U.S. construction, explaining why the original construction was an "error," in the U.S.
    – Zan700
    May 26 at 1:57
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    @Zan700 The term 'show your working' is very common in BrE in the context of mathematics. I've even heard it used in non-mathematical contexts to express the idea of listing all the logical steps that resulted in a particular conclusion.
    – BoldBen
    May 26 at 7:06

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As Bold Ben says, in British English it's quite normal to refer to 'showing your workings' in a mathematical context. You don't just give the answer (which might just be a guess!), you have to show how you arrived at it.

From Oxford Languages: the record of the successive calculations made in solving a mathematical problem - "show details of workings in your answer book"

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  • Interesting, I didn't know this was common in British English as well! I'll file this away in the same mental pigeonhole where I store the difference between "review for exams" (US) and "revise for exams" (UK). And, for that matter, "Past exams" (US) vs. "Past papers" (UK).
    – mweiss
    May 26 at 14:53
  • Curious: In British English, would "show your work" sound strange?
    – mweiss
    May 26 at 14:54
  • I don't think it would have the specific meaning that 'show your workings' does. May 26 at 17:43

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