In the talk show titled “How Dogs Evolved Into 'Our Best Friends'” on NPR’s “Fresh Air” aired on November 8, naturalist Mark Derr offered an intriguing story about how humans and wolves developed a friendly relationship, and wolves evolved into today’s dogs.

[Mark Derr] tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies that he believes humans and wolves developed a close relationship after recognizing themselves in each other while hunting on the trail of big game. "[That's when] they started traveling together, and they've been at it ever since," he says. "The dog is a creation of wolves and humans — of two equal beings that came together at a certain point in history and have been together ever since."

I thought “They’ve been at it ever since” means “they stayed in the same situation / status, or maintained the same (close) relationship,” from the context of the narration.

As I wasn’t sure whether “be at it” is an idiom or not, I consulted both Cambridge and Merriam-Webster online dictionaries, neither of which registers “be at it,” as an idiom, though Cambridge carries “hard at it” as a U.K idiom meaning “putting a lot of effort into what you’re doing."

On the other hand, Google Ngram provides a graph of “be at it” usage, which can be traced back to circa 1840. The incidence of usage started to decline once around 1940, and picked up again coming into 2000.

What does “be at it” mean in the above sentence? Is “be at it” an idiom, or simple combination of words, i.e. “They’ve been at it (the same place, status, position, level, relationship)”?

P.S. Wisdom English Japanese Dictionary at hand registers ‘be at it (again)’ as an idiom with definition ‘be involved aggressively in work,. quarrel, wicked deed, and “Yesterday, they were at it again” as an example of usage. However, I don’t think this definition applies to the above context at all.

  • I don't get the same results with Ngram.
    – Hugo
    Nov 11, 2011 at 8:37
  • You should have looked at "at it"
    – Unreason
    Nov 11, 2011 at 9:06
  • @Hugo. Having seen your comment, I checked Ngram again and confirmed the same result. The usage of 'be at it' draws plateau during 1880 through 1940 at 0.000005% level (I don't know how significant this number is), then dropped to 0.0000025 level during mid 1900s through late 1900s, and picked up in early 2000s again. Nov 11, 2011 at 9:09
  • 1
    @Hugo, I am not sure that "be at it" is a good phrase to ngram - "was at it" or "been at it" seem more relevant.
    – Unreason
    Nov 11, 2011 at 9:41

2 Answers 2


As Barrie says "to be at it" essentially means "to be doing it". It is an idiom.

The slight differences are that it is a little bit less explicit and I feel it can also be a good expression to say "to be trying/attempting (to do something)".

  • 1
    Yes, 'I've been at it all day' suggests a degree of weariness not found in 'I've been doing it all day.' Nov 11, 2011 at 9:53

You were pretty much right. The sentence could be rewritten as They've been doing it ever since, although be at it is rather informal.

  • If ‘be at it’ means ‘be doing it,’ I understand ‘be at it’ cannot stand alone. It always requires the antecedent noun or noun clause that explains what ‘it’ is, as ‘it’ represents for ‘traveling together’ in the above quote from NPR. Then another question - How different is ‘be at it’ meaning ‘be doing it ‘from “Yesterday, they were at it (squabbling) again” shown in Wisdom (Japanese publisher) English Japanese dictionary that seems to be used on its own (without the antecedent)? Are they different usages? Nov 11, 2011 at 21:52
  • @YoichiOishi Oishi: ‘It’ need not have a clearly defined referent: its meaning is determined by the context. Nov 12, 2011 at 9:27
  • @BarrieEngland: wouldn't it be more correct to call "at it" the idiom? @ YoishiOishi: "They were at it again. They started arguing yesterday and they have been at it ever since." Same usage.
    – horatio
    Oct 24, 2012 at 18:20
  • @horatio: No, I don't think so. It's incomplete without some or other form of the verb be. Oct 24, 2012 at 18:47

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