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


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.

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    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
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    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

It's the same with a little difference on each.

What's going on? something "running" that continues to happening right now

What's happening? as Event and occurrence.

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    What makes you think "What's happening" is not asking about something that continues to happen right now? Do you need to use "happening" after "to"? – user140086 Jun 14 '16 at 11:04

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