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Language Lesson: What Does “What Are You Up to” Mean?

by Martha Simmonds
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It’s normal for a friend, relative, or colleague to ask you: What are you up to? Despite being a common question, many people aren’t sure how to respond because they don’t know what it means.

So, what does “what are you up to” mean? Read on to learn what it means and how to respond.

The Meaning of “What Are You Up to?”

Meaning

The question: What are you up to? contains a troublesome phrasal verb “up to”, which simply refers to the act of doing something.

So, when a person asks you what you are up to, they simply want to know what you are currently doing. Here is an example of how the question can be used in a conversation:

Tom: Hi, Jane, how are you?
Jane: Hey, Tom. Good, thanks, you?
Tom: I’m good. What are you up to?
Jane: Oh, I’m just having lunch.
Tom: Nice. What are you eating?

With the above example, it’s clear that the question, “what are you up to?” can mean different things like what are you doing currently? Do you have time to talk? Are you too busy?

In most cases, someone will ask you what you are up to just to know if you are in a position to talk or do something else apart from what is keeping you busy at the moment. Here is an example of how the question can be used in a conversation:

Tom: Hi Jane, how are you doing?
Jane: Hi Tom. Good, thank you. And you?
Tom: I’m good. What are you up to?
Jane: I’m about to have a meeting with a client. I’m sorry I can’t really talk right now.
Tom: It’s okay. We’ll catch up later. Bye.

It’s also important to mention that sometimes people will ask you this question because they want to know what you are doing in your life generally.

In this case, the other person wants to know what has been happening in your life since you last saw each other. Maybe they are a friend or a relative you haven’t been in touch with for a long time.

Here is an example of how the conversation goes:

Tom: Jane, it’s so good to see you! How have you been?
Jane: Hi Tom! I’m fine, still working at the clinic. How about you? What are you up to?
Tom: Oh, I’m into real estate now. I’ve been selling residential properties in Chicago.
Jane isn’t asking Tom what he’s doing at the moment. She wants to know what he has been doing since they last saw each other.

Other Ways to Ask “What Are You Up to?”

Ask

Now that you understand the meaning of “what are you up to” and how to use it in ordinary conversations, it’s important to learn other different ways of asking the same question. Here are other ways to ask “what are you up to?”

1. Are you doing anything?
2. Are you busy?
3. Are you free?
4. Do you have any spare time?
5. Do you happen to have any spare time?
6. What are you doing lately?
7. What are you doing with your life?
8. What are you up to lately?
9. How is it going these days?
10. How is it going lately?
11. What have you been doing lately?
12. What have you been doing with your life?
13. What have you been up to lately?
14. How’s it been going these days?
15. How’s it been going lately?
16. What do you do?

How to Respond to “What Are You Up to?”

Respond

Sometimes it’s difficult to find the right answer to this question, especially if you weren’t expecting it. To answer this question correctly, you have to understand the context. You need to if the other person is asking you about what you are currently doing or what has been happening in your life generally.

Here are examples of how to respond to “what are you up to”.

1. Oh, not much, you?
2. Nothing much. What about you?
3. Oh, not a whole lot. How about you?
4. Not too much.
5. Not a whole lot.
6. Oh, not much.
7. You mean, right now?
8. I’m working. What are you doing? (replace this verb with whatever you are doing at that time).
9. Nothing.
10. The usual.

Now that you already know that “what are you up to?” simply means “how are you?”, you shouldn’t have a hard time finding the right answer. This simple expression goes a long way in making conversations expressive. Your answer can be casual or professional depending on the context and the person you are talking to.

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