When passing someone in the hall, you might say "How are you?" as a greeting, but not meaning it literally, as you don't really require an answer. Is "How are you?" (or "How's it going?", etc.) an idiom when used this way?

"Idiom" doesn't seem appropriate because that combination of words generally has the literal meaning. Is there another word for this?

Sorry if I am not making this clear. If I can clarify in some way, please ask.

Edit: Could someone explain why this question might have been voted down? Not complaining, just trying to learn.

closed as general reference by FumbleFingers, MetaEd, Cameron, tchrist, kiamlaluno Sep 3 '12 at 23:48

This question is too basic; it can be definitively and permanently answered by a single link to a standard internet reference source designed specifically to find that type of information. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    This belongs to a group of phrases called "greeting expressions" or simply "greetings." – JLG Aug 22 '12 at 16:13
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    When used in this way (without the expectation of a literal response), wiktionary has it marked as both idiomatic and rhetorical – Cameron Aug 22 '12 at 16:16
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    While it's used as a greeting, "How are you?" usually elicits a response. A better example might be "How do you do?" which often doesn't and is often not supposed to. – coleopterist Aug 22 '12 at 20:19
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    I haven't downvoted the question, but I've voted to close as General Reference. As @Cameron says, a greeting (or any other utterance) phrased as a question, where you "don't really require an answer", is a rhetorical question. The fact that this particular form of greeting could also be called "idiomatic" is somewhat incidental. – FumbleFingers Aug 22 '12 at 20:41

It's a phatic expression:

a phatic expression /ˈfætɨk/ is one whose only function is to perform a social task, as opposed to conveying information


Idioms typically have meanings completely unrelated to the literal interpretation of words. This might not apply to “How are you?”, as its use as a greeting can be arguably be deduced from the words themselves.

However, the phrase is definitely idiomatic, being an expression (ie. not interpreted literally) that would seem natural to a native speaker.

  • I see what you mean. And the phrase is certainly idiomatic. But, I find it interesting that two people, in passing, might both say, "How are you?", neither expecting any further reply. So, while the expression's literal meaning is obvious to a native speaker, the intended meaning (perhaps "Hello") may not be obvious. I'm sure there's a way to better explain what I mean... I guess that's ultimately what I need help with. – Hap Aug 22 '12 at 15:45
  • @Hap: The meaning of "How are you?" is only obvious to native speakers (or non-natives with even a minimal knowledge of the language) because they hear it all the time. If you'd never heard it before, I suspect the default interpretation might be something more like "How does it come about that you exist?", rather than "How would you describe your current state?". – FumbleFingers Aug 22 '12 at 20:36

I think I would call it symbolic language. Phrases like this ("What's up?" "How's it going?") have a basic meaning which translates in the language but the exchange between two people saying things like this is just to acknowledge one another.

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