Were you confused the first time you were asked, “How is it going?” First, you expect a word like “going” to be paired with “where” and not “how.” But “How is it going?” makes the “it” even more confusing. What does this phrase mean, and when should you use this phrase?
It is correct to say how is it going?” as an informal way of greeting someone, similar to asking, “How are you doing?” You can also use this statement to ask about the progress of a project or relationship. The phrase’s ambiguity only lies out of context: the pronoun “it” refers to the situational context.
Read on to learn what this question means, how to use it, and how to respond to it.
What Does “How Is It Going” Mean?
“How is it going” means almost the same as “Hello,” though it invites more conversation than a basic greeting. You can use it with a referent to mean, “How are you progressing on ______?”
Our first step in understanding this question is to pinpoint what the “it” refers to. If someone is repairing their vehicle and another interjects, “How’s it going?” they likely mean, “How are you progressing on fixing your vehicle?”
However, most uses of the phrase do not have an obvious referent. A stranger passes by and says, “How is it going?” In this case, “it” refers to all of life. This is simply a more natural way of asking, “How are you doing today?” or “How are you?” (source).
Most people respond to “How is it going?” by saying “fine” or “good” and then returning the question to the asker. This informal greeting is not typically an invitation to share your life story; it is an informal way of saying “hi.”
“How is it going?” was originally “How goes it?” We can trace the latter back to at least 1592. The former phrase seems to have become more popular in the late 19th century (source).
In both instances, the “go” is an intransitive verb paired with the prepositional phrase as a complement (source). You could think of the “go” as progressing in life.
How Do You Use “How Is It Going?”
We typically use “How is it going?” as an informal greeting – you will not want to use it in formal settings.
In English, a statement typically follows a subject, verb, and object pattern. Frank (subject) ate (verb) pizza (object). But this structure is often inverted when asking a question. To make a statement a question, simply position the question word before the subject to ask about the object:
- What did Frank eat?
Let’s consider each part of “How is it going?” “How” is an interrogative adverb. This means that “how” is the question word.
“Is” functions as an auxiliary verb in “How is it going?” which helps us determine the tense (source). Here it indicates a present tense. If the sentence were “How was it going?” it would indicate a question about a past action. “How is it going?” is asking how you are faring at present.
In this sentence, “it” is a third-person pronoun that we can apply to places, things, and abstract nouns. We can use “it” as either the subject or the object of a verb (source). When you ask, “How is it going?” “it” is the subject of the sentence. You can substitute “it” with a less vague subject:
- How is the math test going?
In this sentence, “going” is a present progressive participle. If this sentence were a statement instead of a question, we might say the following.
- The math test is going well.
“Is going” is a present progressive. To turn a present progressive into a question, you use this pattern: question word + auxiliary verb + subject + a present participle.
We can break “How is it going?” down into its parts: How (question word) is (auxiliary verb) it (subject) going (present participle)?
Notice that a very similar question follows the same pattern: How (question word) are (auxiliary verb) you (subject) doing (present participle)?
When Can You Use “How Is It Going”?
If someone says, “Hi,” there is only a social obligation to return the greeting. But a greeting like “How is it going?” invites more conversation and allows the receiver to determine the depth of response.
You are at the doctor’s office, and a kind-looking stranger sits beside you. If you desire to start a conversation, what phrase should you use? If you simply say “hi,” then you will likely get no more than a polite wave or a return “hello.”
Asking for the stranger’s name, occupation, or other personal information will seem a bit too aggressive to begin a conversation. This is where a phrase like “How is it going?” can come in handy.
Imagine that your new friend was seen by the doctor first. When he returns, you might ask, “How did it go?” In this instance, you are asking specifically about his trip to the doctor’s office.
You only use the past tense of this phrase when referring to a specific situation. For example, you should never ask an open-ended, past-tense question like “How were you going?”
You must give a detailed inquiry if you want to know about a specific situation. For instance, if you desire to know how your friend is doing in their new relationship, you will need to ask specifically.
Only saying, “How is it going?” will sound like an informal greeting. You will need to ask, “How is it going in your relationship with (significant other)?” Here are example situations where you can use “How is it going?”
- You want to start a conversation with a friend via text message.
- You want to catch up with an acquaintance you have not seen in a while.
- You want to communicate to a stranger that you are open to conversation.
- You want to know how someone is progressing on a project.
In What Context Can You Use “How Is It Going?”
You can use “How is it going?” in any informal context. It is perfectly acceptable when engaging with friends, in the break room with co-workers, or in other informal settings like meeting someone at the grocery store.
The meaning of “How is it going?” also changes based on the context. Likewise, if you are sitting with a friend for coffee and he asks, “How is it going?” he invites further conversation.
On the other hand, if you pass by a friend in the hallway and they greet you with “How is it going?” this usually only means “Hi.” You should respond accordingly.
Your boss might ask you, “How is it going?” Her question is likely not intended to be informal. She is probably asking about your progress on an assignment and how you are faring on the project. She likely isn’t asking about your budding relationship with a significant other.
Using “How Is It Going” in a Full Sentence
“How is it going” usually stands on its own as a question. But if you want to ask about something specific, add those words to the end. You still keep the entire “how is it going” phrase even when you define “it.”
You would not say, “The math test, how is going?” Instead, you would ask, “How is it going on the math test?”
If you are addressing a specific person, you can put their name on either side of the question. “Debbie, how is it going?” is a proper sentence, and so is “How is it going, Debbie?”
- Hey guys, how’s it going?
- How is it going, Frank?
- Speaking of which, how is it going on the landscaping project?
- By the way, how is it going with Jackie?
- Janet, how is it going at work?
When Not to Use “How Is It Going?”
“How is it going?” is not appropriate in every context. Formal and legal contexts are two situations where informal idiomatic expressions like “How is it going?” are too colloquial.
For example, you pass your boss in the hallway on your first day at your new job. Having just learned this new way of saying “hello,” you greet her with a happy, “How is it going?” You are shocked by her scowl. It appears that you have offended your boss.
“How is it going” is a friendly, chill phrase to use with people you know, not your boss or a client. In the above scenario, your boss interpreted your greeting as having too much familiarity. You do not use this phrase in formal contexts.
This is not something you would use in a formal or a legal context either. For example, you should not use “How is it going?” to begin an eloquent speech, an academic paper, or a job interview.
What Can You Use Instead of “How Is It Going?”
Since “How is it going?” is an informal idiom native English speakers use to greet one another, there are several alternatives that equate in meaning.
Some greetings you may ask instead of “How is it going?” include the following:
- How are you doing?
- What’s going on with you?
- What are you up to?
- How’s life?
- What’s up?
- What’s going on?
- What have you been up to lately?
- What’s new with you?
- How is life treating you?
Notice that some of these pertain to catching up with an old friend while others emphasize how one feels or how one’s plans are unfolding today.
Idioms that function as greetings are difficult because we hear them more in conversation than we see them in writing. As such, homophones are easily confused in idiomatic greetings.
Is It “What Are You Up To” or “What Are You Up Too” is a helpful article to understand the proper use of this particular idiomatic greeting.
You cannot understand the meaning of idioms by understanding the definitions of the words that make them up. Idioms are an atypical use of a word or phrase. They are figurative language that is a unique part of the culture they belong to (source).
Every culture has its own idioms – unique phrases or sayings incomprehensible to those outside that culture.
For example, if you give a lengthy and passionate speech to someone who already agrees with your point, you might say, “You’re preaching to the choir.” It does not mean the person is preaching a sermon or that the listener is a choir member. It is a phrase that simplifies a concept and adds a bit of humor.
Why Do We Use Idioms?
We use idioms to simplify concepts and add a bit of spice to our sentences.
Did you notice that “adding a bit of spice” is also an idiom? There was no paprika in that sentence, but it added a bit of flair to the sentence. Many writers will use idioms to keep readers engaged. Fiction writers will use idioms to place characters in a particular cultural time or setting.
Because idioms often evoke a specific region of the world, we can use them to make the hearer more comfortable. It is a way of speaking their language. But this can also be dangerous because, without understanding idioms, you could misunderstand the tone or meaning.
Here is an example using the idiom “you got it”: You Got It: Understanding the Meaning and Use of the Phrase.
Examples of Idioms
There are thousands of idioms in English.
Here are a few idioms and their meanings:
|Once in a blue moon||Very rarely||The Royals will win the World Series once in a blue moon.|
|Beat around the bush||Avoidance of the main point of an issue||Instead of confessing to his disobedience, the guilty child kept beating around the bush.|
|Hard to swallow||Difficult to believe||I find that story hard to swallow; I think you are lying.|
|Call it a day||To be finished with something (often used if the task is not complete but you can no longer work on it)||We should call it a day on this project.|
|Hit the sack||Go to bed, go to sleep||Let’s hit the sack, dear; it’s almost midnight.|
|Don’t judge a book by its cover. Or “you can’t judge a book by its cover.”||You cannot fully know someone/something solely on the outward appearance||The young man was short in stature but was the best basketball player on the team. It shows you that you cannot judge a book by its cover.|
|Rubbed the wrong way||I did not like this person on first impression; something seemed odd||When I first met my new boss, he really rubbed me the wrong way, but eventually, he became my favorite employer.|
|Burn bridges||Doing something impossible to go back on/return to||When you quit your job, give two weeks notice. You shouldn’t burn any bridges.|
|Eat your words||To have to admit when you are wrong||When his boisterous claims came to nothing, the man had to eat his words.|
|Under the weather||You are sick and not feeling well.||I am under the weather today; I don’t believe I will come to work.|
“How is it going?” is an idiomatic expression that can be confusing the first time you hear it. Once you discover that it is a friendly way of saying, “Hello,” or even a way to invite a bit deeper conversation, you will find “How is it going?” a helpful phrase for informal contexts. So, how’s it going?