What does "a" (the indefinite article) imply in this context?

3 Answers 3


In that context, "a living" refers to the subject's profession/job. So, that question is asking:

What do you do for your profession?

You can also say things like:

I build houses for a living. (Your profession is building houses)

I found this definition for living:

an income sufficient to live on or the means of earning it.


The indefinite article is simply referring to the fact that there are multiple things that a person can do for their job. A definite article would imply that there is only a single thing a person can do to make a living.

  • I found a sample sentence "I mean, I don't like my job but at least it's a living (= a way of earning money)." Source
    – Sandeep D
    Commented Feb 18, 2014 at 4:51

To my knowledge, it is a shortening of the phrase "a living wage."

People will also use this expression to say things like, "It's a living."

But, you can also say "I make my living . . ."

The short answer to your question: Living in this case is a noun. And, therefore needs the article to designate it as such, instead of being a verb.

If you asked "What do you do for living?" (Gerund of the verb) The answer would be akin to "Breath, eat, drink, etc."

  • 1
    If you down vote, please comment.
    – David M
    Commented Feb 17, 2014 at 17:15
  • This answer comes closer to answering the OP's question than any of the others.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Feb 9, 2020 at 0:17

Replace omitted words to get a normal and reasonable expression, e.g. "What do you do to earn the money necessary for a decent living?" I think then the shortened expression will be clear. Of course, that's a long sentence with a lot of words and the question is frequently used. So it's no wonder that such a formula gets shortened and everything that is self-evident is omitted.

  • I believe the poster understands the idiom, he is asking about the usage of the indefinite article "a".
    – David M
    Commented Feb 17, 2014 at 18:45
  • I think "a living" is sufficiently explained with the complete formula.
    – rogermue
    Commented Feb 17, 2014 at 19:09
  • @rogermue your sentence ended with "a decent living". It doesn't describe the usage of "a". However, I have found the answer. You can look at my comment on Alex W's answer.
    – Sandeep D
    Commented Feb 18, 2014 at 4:58

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