Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Is there a semantic difference between What's going on? and What's happening?. Can they be used interchangeably?

share|improve this question
add comment

1 Answer

up vote 1 down vote accepted

Yes, they can. But consider this difference:

"What's going on?" can also be accusatory, as in "What's going on here? I didn't give permission for you to have a party in my house!"

"What's happening?" ranges from innocuous to friendly. It's a "defanged" version of "What's going on?" But most of the time, the latter statement is innocuous as well.

share|improve this answer
1  
Other tones are possible as well: surprised, suspicious, shocked, bewildered. But I can't see any difference of usage between the two sentences for the tones I listed. –  Mitch Schwartz Dec 13 '10 at 0:42
3  
I’d suggest: for any given tone, they have the same usage. But their relative frequencies in different tones will vary, slightly: accusatory “what’s going on?” more common than accusatory “what’s happening”, inquisitive “what’s happening?” slightly more common than inquisitive “what’s going on?”… –  PLL Dec 13 '10 at 2:36
add comment

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.