What Are You Up To? Meaning, Usage, and More

When speaking English with friends or acquaintances, you’re bound to hear a lot of new English idioms. Native English speakers frequently use casual language in conversations, especially when it comes to greetings. Unfortunately, this can make it difficult for non-native speakers to understand what’s been said or answer with confidence. One question that often causes confusion is: what are you up to?

In today’s guide, we are going to take a closer look at the meaning of what are you up to, provide example answers, as well as situations in which you can use the question. So, let’s get started!

 

What are you up to meaning

In various cases, “up to” is an informal replacement for the word “doing.” Here are two common examples:

  • “Up to no good” – Doing something bad or having bad intentions.
    • I think that man is up to no good. (I think that man is doing something bad)
  • “Up to something” – Doing something in secret, usually something bad.
    • Whenever I can’t find my dog, I know she’s up to something. (Whenever I can’t find my dog, I know she’s doing something bad)

However, “up to” can have other meanings as well. For example:

  • “Up to (someone)” – Within a person’s control; to be someone’s decision.
    • I don’t know which restaurant is better, so it’s up to you to decide.
    • It’s up to us to solve the problem.
  • “Up to (an activity)” – To meet a certain standard OR to be able/willing to take part in something.
    • He’s not up to the task. (He’s not able to do it)I’m not up to seeing my boss today. (I’m not willing to see my boss today)
  • “Up to (level or number)” – Reaching or referencing a limit.
    • They are allowed to take up to three weeks of vacation per year.

Fortunately, you don’t have to memorize all of these usages to understand the meaning of what are you up to. Though it may sound strange to the untrained ear, what are you up to is actually pretty simple. It just means what are you doing. While they both mean the same thing, what are you up to is a little more casual, while what are you doing is a bit more formal. 

Like most terms in English, what are you up to can mean different things based on your tone. For example, if you are suspicious of what someone is doing, you might ask the question with a stronger tone. Alternatively, if you just want to know what someone is doing (without any suspicion), you should use a friendlier tone.

 

Synonyms

It’s also important to remember that what are you up to is a common greeting in English. Here are a few similar phrases to use when greeting someone:

  • What’s up?
  • What have you been up to?
  • What’s happening?
  • What do you have going on today?
  • What’s new?
  • What do you have planned?
  • What are you doing today?

All of these examples offer slightly altered versions of what are you up to. As you can see, the phrase is pretty easy to use in everyday English conversation. However, it can feel a little more complicated when you need to answer the question.

 

What are you up to answers

Now that you know the meaning of the phrase, it’s time to figure out how to respond to it. What are you up to is a very open-ended question. Your answer could depend on your mood, your current activities, or even your relationship with the person speaking to you. That said, there are a few tried-and-true answers that will help you get your point across clearly.

General answers

If you want to express that you’re not busy or you don’t have any specific plans, you could say…

  • Not much.
  • Nothing much.
  • Just hanging out.
  • I’m just looking for something to do.

None of these answers provide a lot of details. So, if you want to keep the conversation going, you can add “What about you?” to the end of your answer. This will also show that you’re interested in the other person and want to be friendly. 

Specific answers

While many English speakers ask this question as a casual greeting, they may actually want to know what you’re doing. As a result, the answers above won’t really provide the right information. This means that you’ll need to give specific examples about your current activities. Keep in mind that what are you up to is rather vague. This gives you a lot more freedom to form your answer. You can talk about what you are generally doing in your life or what you are doing at the moment the question is asked. Here are a few sample answers:

  • I’m working on a project for school right now. Do you have a minute to help me?
  • I’ve been applying for new jobs. Do you know of any good openings?
  • I want to spend more time with my family, so I’m learning how to improve my time management. What about you?
  • I’m watching a new reality TV show. Do you want to join me?

While it’s not mandatory to finish your answer with a question, it is a great way to keep the conversation going. Moreover, providing a short answer to a friendly greeting like what are you up to may seem a little rude. When someone asks what you are up to, it’s often expected that you will answer and then ask them something in return. 

On the other hand, you don’t necessarily want to provide a long, detailed answer. Why? Because in most cases, the question is just a polite, casual way to say “hello.” People may get bored or even annoyed if you spend 20 minutes talking about everything that’s going on in your life!

 

Conclusion

English can be a strange language sometimes. Phrases like what are you up to won’t make much sense unless you’re unfamiliar with casual greetings and the relevant idioms. Thankfully, it’s just a different way to ask what someone is doing — specifically or more generally. So, now that you know what it means, you can start asking people what they’re up to and letting them know what you’re up to as well!

Matthew Jones

Matthew Jones

Matthew Jones is a freelance writer and former English teacher. He enjoys traveling the world, watching movies, and caring for his three toy poodles.
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