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I overheard my manager asking "What are you up to?"

What does that idiom mean? Is it an informal/negative way of asking??

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It's just an informal way of asking "What are you doing right now". See esl.about.com/library/lessons/blphrasalbuild.htm –  Gaurav Sep 14 '10 at 4:22
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An excellent example of a sentence that's awkward to not end with a preposition: "up to what are you?" –  Seamus Sep 14 '10 at 10:15
    
@Seamus: True, but it's not like you'd be using this construction in a formal setting. –  Billy ONeal Sep 14 '10 at 16:10
    
Related. –  Kosmonaut Apr 10 '11 at 15:02
    
@Seamus, unless you're Yoda, in which case that's perfectly natural. –  Ben Lee Mar 30 '12 at 18:52
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5 Answers

up vote 9 down vote accepted

"What are you up to?" means

"What have you been doing lately?".

If you add an adverb to the end of the phrase, for instance,

"What are you up to tonight?" or "What are you up to this summer?"

it can be interpreted as

"What are you planning to do tonight?" or "What are you planning to do this summer?".

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Hope you don't mind the edit. Makes things just slightly clearer in my view, good answer otherwise. –  Noldorin Sep 15 '10 at 14:26
    
@Noldorin: No problem. Thanks for improving my answer. –  Mehper C. Palavuzlar Sep 15 '10 at 14:36
    
Can also mean "What's your scheme?" as when the boss comes in after hours to find you hauling cement bags into the office. –  moioci Sep 18 '10 at 4:55
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Can I also add that the intention should be determined by the tone the person uses when asking. If they are asking it in a light hearted open way, they genuinely want to know what you are doing (at the moment or a later point in time).

If there appears to be suspicion in their tone, they may be implying that you are "up to" something you shouldn't be and should stop.

A common phrase is "are you up to mischief?” which means "are doing something naughty, you shouldn't be"?

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I think this distinction is important and salient and I'm really surprised the checkmark went to answer that didn't even mention this. –  Ben Lee Mar 30 '12 at 18:53
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It means, 'What are you doing?' and is similar to the phrase, 'He's up to something'. Yes, it is generally informal.

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I'd add that if you say that someone is "up to something", it generally insinuates that they're "up to no good", or some kind of mischief... –  Benjol Sep 14 '10 at 5:10
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Indeed, "What are you up to?" might have this sense - it depends on the tone. But without the emphasis, I don't think there will usually be any negative connotation. –  Colin Fine Sep 14 '10 at 16:34
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Another example of a phrasal verb -- see http://english.stackexchange.com/questions/2989/why-do-we-use-up-as-adverbs-for-verbs for more information.

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"What are you up to?"

                = "What do you intend to do?" 

                = "What are you willing to do?"

And about it being formal or not, as far as I know, it is more friendly than formal.

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