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The sentence

何をしてたと思う?

apparently translates to

What do you think I've been doing

Questions:

  1. What is と doing here (and/or how is it literally being translated)? If we remove it, does the meaning of the sentence change?

  2. According to a dictionary, "してた" is the past tense て form of する. But I thought the て form was "tenseless", and had to be combined with other verbs in order to achieve, e.g., the paste tense?

2 Answers 2

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  1. と is being used as a "quotation" particle. It is used to quote what was said before it to nominalize for the verb after it. 思う needs the quote particle と to point out what it is that's being thought. ([what's being thought]と思う and not [what's being thought]思う)
  2. してた is a colloquial spelling/pronunciation of していた. The past continuous form of a verb is created by taking the ―て form and adding いた or いました (the past tense form of いる.) In casual spoken Japanese the い is sometimes dropped in the continuous forms of verbs (e.g. て form + いる conjugation) because it's easier to pronounce.
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  • Out of curiosity, is "[something being thought]思う" just literal total nonsense in Japanese, or does it connote some different meaning?
    – George
    Commented Jul 23, 2022 at 20:33
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    @George It's total nonsense in standard written Japanese (although people can make a guess, of course). This type of と is sometimes omitted in very informal dialectal speech. For example, you may hear a Kansai comedian say "何してた思う?" on TV. Otherwise, a quotative particle is mandatory.
    – naruto
    Commented Jul 24, 2022 at 2:34
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してた conveys that something was in some state

て form has many uses. It can be a request, manner something was done by (like particle de), indicate sequence of events, etc. But here, it is being used to form している. The いる is then being conjugated to いた. Then, "い抜き" (i-nuki) occurs which is the omission of い. That's how they got to してた. いる is the one that's in past tense here.

As for particle と, it is pretty much always used with 思う to indicate what is being thought about.

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