You’ve probably heard your friends and family tell you something about themselves, then turn to you and ask, “What about you?” You probably responded by making an equivalent statement about yourself that resembles what they said. But was this question-and-answer exchange correct?
It is correct to say “What about you?” in informal conversations when you want to know someone’s response to a topic or choice you are discussing. For example, if you and your friends are planning to order a pizza, you might say, “I want pepperoni. What about you?” to find out what toppings your friends want.
Read on to learn more about this versatile question and how to use it.
What Does “What About You?” Mean?
“What about you?” is a common English idiom that means you want to learn about the listener’s involvement or choice in a particular topic.
Idioms are common phrases that convey a meaning distinct from, but related to, the literal meaning of the individual words that make up the idiom (source).
For example, an idea “over someone’s head” is not literally floating in the air above the person. Instead, “over someone’s head” is an idiom that means the idea is too difficult for that person to understand.
“What about” is a popular idiom with several common uses in everyday speech (source). Speakers use “What about” to ask a question or make a suggestion connecting the object of the preposition “about” to the discussion’s topic.
In the question, “What about you?” the listener is the object of “about.” So this is a question that you may use to seek the listener’s input on the topic.
How Do You Use “What About You?”
You may use “What about you?” whenever you present a suggestion, statement, or question and want to know the listener’s response to the topic.
“What about you?” always refers the listener to the statement immediately preceding the question. You may use it to gain information or make a suggestion. Here are some situational examples.
You may use it to offer a suggestion:
- We are going to the mall after school. What about you?
We also use it to compare information:
- I got a B on my spelling test. What about you?
Or, you can use it to ask for someone’s choice:
- I’m ordering a burger. What about you?
You see, “What about you?” is a reasonable question in everyday situations. In each example, the speaker makes a statement before asking the question and anticipates a response.
How Do You Answer “What About You?”
When somebody asks, “What about you?” the listener may reply with an answer stating their choice or involvement in the topic.
The simplest way for the listener to do this is to take the speaker’s original statement and apply it to their own circumstance.
Let’s expand on our earlier examples:
- “We are going to the mall after school. What about you?” “I can’t go. I have to work.”
- “I got a B on my spelling test. What about you?” “I got a perfect score!”
- “I’m ordering a burger. What about you?” “I’ll have the chicken wings.”
In these examples, the answer completes the conversation. The listener does not need to restate the context. For instance, you don’t need to say, “I can’t go to the mall.” Both people know the context.
Just as “What about you?” doesn’t repeat the details, it is ok that the response, “I can’t go,” omits the exact details.
When Can You Use “What About You?”
You may use “What about you?” in informal and polite conversations whenever you present facts or suggestions to another person and want a response.
Questions are conversational by nature. When you ask a question, you expect the other person to answer. Therefore, in most conversations, “What about you?” is an appropriate way to keep a conversation moving.
Like most idioms, “What about you?” is a shorter way of saying something else. Let’s see how our examples look if we spell out our questions.
- Are you going to the mall with us?
- What was your test score?
- What are you going to order?
In each of these situations, the question contains everything the listener needs. But when you start by offering your own plans or information, you may add “What about you?” to ask for your friend’s response.
Using “What About You?” in a Full Sentence
You usually use “What about you?” as a minor sentence that contains no additional words. Use it to refer to the information you presented in the preceding sentence.
A minor sentence is a sentence that is not grammatically complete but functions as a complete sentence (source). For example, “What about you?” is not a complete sentence because it lacks a verb. Instead, the information from the preceding sentence completes its meaning. Our earlier examples use this two-sentence construction.
You may join two closely-related independent clauses with a semicolon to form a single sentence like this:
- I got a B on my spelling test; what about you?
You would rarely do this with “What about you?” for two reasons. First, you are joining a question to a statement. So writing two separate sentences clarifies this difference. Second, unless you write dialogue in a story, you will probably never write, “What about you?”
“What about you?” is common in speech but not writing. In speaking, the listener hears a statement followed by a question. So, when you need to write “What about you?” it makes sense to write it the same way people naturally hear it.
When Not to Use “What About You?”
Do not use “What about you?” without a preceding contextual statement. Also, avoid using it when you ask about feelings and opinions.
“What about you?” never stands alone. It must always follow some kind of information. For example, if you and your friend sit at the restaurant and you ask, “What about you?” to start the conversation, your friend will not understand that you are asking her what she wants to order.
“What about you?” only makes sense when you need to compare or relate different pieces of information. Unless you tell your friend what you are ordering, she has nothing to compare your question to.
This is why “What about you?” does not work in formal settings. For example, in job interviews and courtrooms, people ask a lot of questions, but not in a personally relatable way and not by sharing their own information.
You wouldn’t expect a potential employer to say, “I have a master’s degree from Harvard. What about you?” Not only does it sound like bragging, but it misses the point of the interview, which is to find out information about the applicant.
Because there is no need to compare information, a direct question is more appropriate here:
- Tell me about your education.
One more nuanced situation where you wouldn’t use “What about you?” is when you are asking about someone’s feelings. Generally, “What about” is the idiom English speakers use to establish facts and objective information. We usually ask about feelings by saying, “How about you?” (source).
What Can You Use Instead of “What About You?”
The alternatives to “What about you?” are suitable for more subjective questions. There are also ways to shorten this question even further.
As we mentioned, when you want to know someone’s opinion or feelings on a shared point of discussion, “How about you?” is the appropriate question. Look at the difference between these examples:
- I am going to the beach. What about you?
- I would love to go to the beach. How about you?
In the first example, you invite the listener to join you on a trip to the beach. In the second example, you ask about her opinion of the beach without even saying you are going yourself. If you use “What about you?” in this situation, the listener might mistakenly take your question as an invitation.
Even when “What about you?” is appropriate, speakers find ways to shorten the question and move the conversation along even more quickly. For example, you might hear “And you?” or just “You?”
Here’s how it looks in conversation.
- “I’m hungry. You?” “Very!” “Let’s eat.”
If you’re having this conversation by text message, you might even use the shorthand “WBU” to ask, “What about you?” (source).
Polite questions are questions that speakers use to keep them from sounding invasive or confrontational. They are also less intrusive than direct questions.
If you don’t understand a process at work, you might ask, “Why do we do it this way?” The other person might hear this as a challenge. But if you reword your question to say, “Could you help me understand why we do it this way?” the hearer is much more likely to believe that you simply want to learn something.
“What about you?” is a polite question because it uses shared information or experiences to turn a direct question into a collaborative conversation.
This article was written for strategiesforparents.com.
To see more examples of polite questions, read or article Is It Correct to Say “Did It Go Well”?
“What about you?” is a polite question you may use in polite or informal speech. Use it after a statement to ask for the hearer’s response to or involvement with the topic.