"What do you do on Sundays?" vs "What are you doing on Sunday?"

In the first one, the question asks what I do in general on the 7th day of the week. While in the second one, I am asked what my plans are for this upcoming Sunday.

I understand the difference in the meaning, but what grammar rule can I cite to explain why it is What do... in one and What are... in the other.

  • 3
    In some regions and contexts (such as mine), Sunday is considered the first day of the new week.
    – Cargill
    Dec 5, 2015 at 21:38
  • 1
    Where have you looked to investigate how these different expressions are used? Dec 5, 2015 at 21:42

2 Answers 2


When forming questions, the word order is changed, an auxiliary verb is often introduced, and a question pronoun such as "what" or "who" is used.

"I do things on Sundays." is changed into "What do you do on Sundays?" The auxilliary "do" is introduced and "things" is changed to "what."

"I am doing something on Sunday." is changed into "What are you doing on Sunday?" The be verb "am" is changed into "are" and "something" is changed to "what."

The first sentence / question ask about regular or habitual activities. The second is asking for a future plan or activity. The present continuous is often used to talk about the future, and often an adverbial is added for clarity: "I am flying to New York on Sunday." or "I am cleaning my home on New Year's day."

As a side note, the use of present progressive to talk about the future started being used around Shakespeare's time.


What do you is clearly referring a hypothetical or unspecific time while What are you is referring to a state of being. Since the former is in-finite (non-timed), you use the infinitive verb form (do). Since the latter is with respect to a process connected to now or another specific time, you use the progressive verb form (doing).

  • 1
    While I agree with your conclusion, I think the reasoning is suspect (unless you just intended it as a mnemonic). You use the infinitive because that's the form after do (and most other auxiliaries), not because it is being used for non-specific time. In the positive you use a simple verb (I go vs I am gong), and although go is the same form as the infinitive, I don't think anybody would refer to it as infinitive in I go.
    – Colin Fine
    Dec 6, 2015 at 1:03
  • When I think about the words "What do you ...", it sounds very hypothetical and timeless in my mind. For example, "What do you do when the door bell rings?" or "What do you get when you add 2 + 2?". On the other hand, "What are you ..." rings bells more along the lines of "What are you saying?" or "What are you doing?". I believe I see where you are coming from with the auxiliaries in general, but perhaps their invention was specifically for hypothetical (untensed) contexts.
    – Michael
    Dec 6, 2015 at 4:03
  • No. I agree that in modern English, with most verbs (excluding for example, verbs of perception) the simple present is not normally used for present time, and that one of its functions is expressing timeless claims. But that fact is not predictable from any structural feature of the constructions, or indeed from the history of English. It just happens to be so.
    – Colin Fine
    Dec 6, 2015 at 16:20

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