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Most of the examples I looked up with the expression "while you're at it" involves physical contexts:

  • "I'm going to the store to buy a newspaper." – "While you're at it, could you get some milk?"
  • Since we're cleaning the kitchen, we should wash the floor while we're at it.

I'm wondering if the expression could be used in this context:

  • This artwork needs to be updated with the new logo. While we're at it, can we change the typography?

Also, the preposition "at" is used to speak about specific locations, so it makes me think the expression should not be used in non-physical contexts.

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  • 20
    Sure, you can use it wherever it makes sense to you. But updating graphics is tangible work, not abstract. Oct 25 at 20:43
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    Being 'at' something means 'doing/making' something. The activity can be mental or physical.
    – Dan
    Oct 26 at 11:53
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    Your third example is correct, but your assumption that in the first two examples you're talking about a physical location is not. In the first example, "it" is the act of "going to the store", it is not the physical location of the store or you being in the store. In the second example, "it" is the act of "cleaning the kitchen", it is not the fact that you are physically in the kitchen or that you are in the kitchen. For example: "I'm going to wash the upstairs windows, and while I'm at it I might as well vacuum the car" => no shared physical location, "it" refers to the act of cleaning.
    – Flater
    Oct 26 at 15:53
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    What did you doubt about "This artwork needs to be updated with the new logo. While we're at it, can we change the typography?" Oct 26 at 22:04
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    @RobbieGoodwin Forgive me for speculating, but I think Flater's comment above probably answers about 90% of your question. Oct 27 at 20:37
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Yes, this is fine.

The point is that in your original example "While you're at it, could you get some milk?", "it" doesn't refer to the store, but the activity of buying a newspaper. (If "while you're at the store" were meant, the natural thing to say would be "while you're there".) "While you're at it", in this context, is a short way of saying "while you're engaged in that activity", so there is no reason it needs to be a physical activity.

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    +1 for noting that “it” refers to the activity, not the location.
    – Lawrence
    Oct 26 at 9:45
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    This should be the accepted answer, since it explains why it's OK.
    – Barmar
    Oct 26 at 14:56
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    Good answer, but slight nitpick - "at it" is an idiomatic phrase itself meaning to be engaged in some activity. The "it" alone doesn't refer to the activity - "while you're at [buying a newspaper]" doesn't make sense. Here, "at" doesn't refer to being in a location or state (i.e. the store), and "it" doesn't refer to the activity (i.e. buying the newspaper), but together, "at it" refers to being engaged in the activity. Oct 26 at 16:31
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    @NuclearHoagie it actually does refer to the activity. "At" in this specific case means "doing" or "engaged in" and "it" is the activity. Your example of "at buying a newspaper" is a bit odd, but it's not incomprehensible.
    – barbecue
    Oct 26 at 21:24
  • @barbecue I second that. If I asked you "Can you get me some gum while you're doing it?" You could ask "While I'm doing what?" and I would respond "While you're buying a newspaper.' The 'it' seems to clearly refer to the task, and 'at' means while you're engaged in the task. Oct 27 at 19:15
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I agree. It is OK to use for non-physical situations.

This app computes your total bill, and while it's at it imitates the sound of a 1950's cash register.

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    There's a missing second "it" after "at it". (Or rather, there isn't.)
    – henning
    Oct 26 at 15:38
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    The parallelism may be confusing. This app computes, and imitates. You could (as @henning notes) add another "it" ... This app computes, and it imitates.
    – GEdgar
    Oct 26 at 15:44
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    Oh, now I see. It works both ways, indeed.
    – henning
    Oct 26 at 15:45
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    @GEdgar If that's the intended construction, the comma before "and" ought to be removed. For extra clarity, a comma could be added after "while it's at it"
    – PC Luddite
    Oct 27 at 2:19
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    The construction "and while it's at it imitates . . ." is too unclear and confusing as an example, although technically grammatical. As previously noted, either another "it" to indicate the subject for "imitates", or a more straightforward "the app imitates . . .", and the confusion disappears.
    – Mark G B
    Oct 27 at 16:08
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"At" doesn't have to imply physical proximity; it can also have other prepositional uses. It can be replaced with "about" in the phrase, "while we're about it." See definition 3 here, "used as a function word to indicate that with which one is occupied or employed."

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  • I've never heard that phrase. Is it British?
    – Barmar
    Oct 26 at 14:55
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    @Barmar I think so; scroll down in these definitions to the British English section for "active in or engaged in: she is about her business" Oct 26 at 15:03
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    "While we're about it" does sound British to me (as an American), but the phrase "go about one's business" is used in American English. I'm not sure if there's a dialect difference between "go about" and "be about," or if the difference is in the use of "it" versus a phrase involving "business."
    – DLosc
    Oct 26 at 16:11
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I'm a software engineer and I do a lot of bug fixes. While I'm at it, I often try to do code cleanup, such as deleting code that isn't used, making logic simpler, adding comments to confusing parts I have already spent time trying to understand, and do several other things to make the code more readable and less confusing.

Oftentimes browsing questions and answers here on Stack Exchange, I'll answer a question, since I'm already here.

The phrase "since I'm/you're already here/there" has a similar connotation as "while I'm/you're at it". It implies a location, but it can also mean an action. In the 2nd paragraph above, the phrase really means that I've already read the question so I can answer it, rather than just that I'm already at the page that asks a question.

This can go further, too. "Since you're going to the grocery store, can you also go to the hardware store and pick up some more screws?" The hardware store might be next door, but maybe not. This is a little more abstract, but it's still "while you're at it". The action here is more generically "running errands", rather than specifically getting groceries.

These examples can also be used non-physically.

  • While you're already deploying the mobile app updates, can you also deploy the new website updates, too?
  • Since you're already in that app, can you fix these other bugs, too?
  • You've been reading Charles Dickens? While you're at it try reading some Daniel Defoe.
  • You're thinking about how to fix climate change? While you're at it, how about figuring out how to fix world hunger?

You can even have it mean physical and non-physical things at the same time.

  • You're doing yardwork? While you're at it, can you think about what living room set you like?

Most of the time, these "while you're at it" tasks are related, but they don't have to be. My last two examples are specific to that idea. Climate change and world hunger can be loosely related, since climate change affects the ability to feed people, but simply fixing that won't also fix the socio-economic and political reasons people aren't getting the food and nutrition they need.

And the last one is an example of how you can do two things pretty much simultaneously without interfering with the other task. Yes, you need to focus on mowing the lawn so you don't also mow the garden, but you can still think about how the furniture is going to fit in the room, how the colors match the woodwork/carpet/paint/tile/etc., how comfortable they were in the store, how expensive it is, and all those other things without really taking time away from picking up sticks/trimming bushes/raking leaves/whatever.

We do these kinds of things without even thinking about it most of the time. While we're driving, we think about how our day went, what we're going to say at the meeting/interview/, how we want to get to 2nd base with our date, and more.

We even do it accidentally. You could be thinking about a problem at work and while doing so, you realized you can fix a problem at home using the same kind of solution, or you were filling out some paperwork and suddenly you realized just how much repetition it is and figured out exactly how a single form could replace the 5 current ones.

These kinds of things are all related to "while you're at it" and are definitely the kinds of non-physical contexts you ask about. It's not always asking someone else to do something or even that it's a conscious act, but something we do so naturally that we usually don't even recognize when we do it.

And to address the definition of "at", it's not that it only represents a place, but it also represents time, and many other things.

  • I'm not at a good place in my life right now.
  • I'll meet you at noon.
  • He grabbed at the baseball, but couldn't catch it.
  • You can reach me at my work phone.
  • I've been thinking for a while and finally arrived at a decision.
  • Why is your cat staring at nothing?

This is part of the reason why English is so hard to understand. Words can have so many different meanings that the context of when and how the word is used is almost more important than the word itself.

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  • The last example seems different since "thinking about what living room set you like" is completely unrelated to "doing yardwork", and as you've implicitly pointed out "while you're at it" as a phrase has the connotation of "you could also do this related activity cheaply/quickly since you are all set for activities in that area" (per your other examples of course). I think a better example would be "You're doing yardwork? While you're at it, can you think about what garden furniture set you like?". Oct 28 at 17:21
  • @lessthanideal, I specifically made that last example something unrelated to show that the two things you are doing don't have to be related, especially when you are doing something "non-physical", like the OP asks about. Sure, most times the two tasks will be related, but they don't have to be. Even the example for climate change and world hunger are two things that aren't necessarily directly related. Oct 28 at 17:40
  • But I think they do have to be related for the expression "while you're at it", as an expression. That's what it means - "because you are already doing x, it's an opportunity to also do y since it is related". It doesn't just mean "can you do x at the same time you're doing y". If you meant them to be unrelated, I think you need to state it explicitly ("the words also make sense when not used as an expression, for two unrelated activities..."), since you gave it as an example of "physical and non-physical" but those can be related. ... Oct 28 at 18:03
  • ... But I don't think myself the expression is to be used like that. and it's odd to hear. "Can you think about what living room set you'd like while you're doing the yardwork?" is a neutral suggestion about two activities but "While you're at x can you also do y" implies that x makes y easier or more relevant. (I took the climate change/world hunger example to be showing how it can be used ironically, is that not what you meant?). Oct 28 at 18:03
  • @lessthanideal, the climate change example could definitely be used sarcastically, but I find it extremely normal for people to do unrelated tasks at the same time. Check out my latest edit for more info. In my groceries example, the only way they are related is that it's an errand, not that screws are related to food, and being an errand is a pretty loose connection, IMO. I've heard people respond with something like "why don't I also get new tires, renew my license, and get the car detailed while I'm at it" to signify that simply "running errands" is a bad excuse for lumping them together. Oct 28 at 18:14

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