You’re sitting at your work desk. You have a pile of papers that need to be sorted. Some numbers that need to put into a spreadsheet. Emails that need to be answered.
Are you doing any of that? No. You’re scrolling through twitter looking at what the cast of Friends thinks about Corona.
Your colleague approaches you and says “The boss is coming. Look busy” and you respond with “Thanks for the heads up”.
“Thanks for the heads up”. It’s just slang for “I appreciate the fact that you have informed me of this information. Whilst I’m not too happy about it, if you hadn’t informed me, I would have faced negative consequences”.
But where does it come from? How did it take off? And why is so widely used?
Usually when we say “thanks for the heads up” we mean it as a noun. Usually when we think of nouns, we think of physical things that we can touch. But heads up qualifies as an abstract noun; an idea or concept, but not a physical object like love or danger.
When used as a noun, “heads up” is another word for warning, information that can help us avoid bad outcomes.
As well as being a noun, “heads up” can also be used as an adjective. When used in this way, you are describing somebody who is alert, aware of their surroundings, and will know what the next action they need to take is.
Usually, this is used when talking about sports, but other examples of when it can be used is when you’re writing a fight scene, or talking about a politician.
For example “The Lakers won tonight, because they played a heads up game”
“She knew she had to be heads up when she realised the place was surrounded”
“The decision he took to prevent the spread of Corona was very heads up”.
Why we say “Thanks”
Most you will likely be aware that manners and saying Thank You are important but why?
Manners are the rules that society puts in place to help ensure that people are looking out for the interests and well-being of others. If somebody has helped you, it’s important that you acknowledge the effort they’ve put in for you. “Thank You” or “Thanks”is the way that our society has agreed is the best way to show gratitude.
Is this case, you’re expressing gratitude for having received information.
Now we know what it means, where does it come from?
Whilst many of us like to think of it as a very modern phrase, it can actually be traced back to the early 19th century.
The first recorded usage of the phrase can be traced back to the Knapsack, a story by Miss Edgeworth. However, back then it was used as an interjection.
In the 20th century, a Florida newspaper was the first to use the term as an adjective.
However, it wasn’t until 1979 when it was used as a noun, by the Washington Post.
Obviously, it’s in the present tense. But there’s more to it than that.
There’s two types of present tense.
The simple present is talking about what happens regularly, such as “I walk to work”.
The continuous present is talking about what’s happening right now, such as “I am walking to work”.
“Thanks for the heads ups” breaks this rule. It’s written like a simple present, but meant as a continuous present.
If it was written in the tense it’s meant in, it would be “I am thanking you for giving me a heads up”.
By making it quicker to say, you’re making it break the grammar rules. However, the rules that determines grammar are determined by society, therefore if society says it’s correct, then it’s correct.
Of course, we don’t have to use it. There are plenty of synonyms we could use to thank somebody for their warnings.
We could be right to the point and just say “Thanks for the warning” or “Thank you for letting me know”.
We could use plenty of other single words such as notification, alert, caution.
You can also use less common phrases such as “a shot across the bow”, “advance notice”, or “wake up call”.
But none of these have become quite as popular as “heads up”.
Why it’s become so popular
It’s interesting to think about why, when so many different phrases exist, the most popular seems to be “heads up”.
Perhaps part of this comes from where it’s been used, more specifically, action films. The heroes in action films are people who we want to be like, and therefore by speaking like them, we get that one tiny step closer to actually becoming them.
It also could be because it falls into that comfy space between pretentious and uneducated. Simply saying “warning” could make us come across like we have a small vocabulary, but something like “a shot across the bow” makes us sound like a show off.
When we use it
Another piece of food for thought is when we use it.
Yes, after hearing new information, but only information that will impact in a negative way.
We wouldn’t say “thanks for the heads up” after we’ve been told about half price drinks at our favourite bar, or sunny weather on the weekend.
This is likely because in both sports and war, where the phrase has it’s origin, keeping your head up is important for making sure that you don’t get hurt, and you get the outcome you want.
When somebody gives you something useful, such as information, it’s important to show gratitude. And the way most of us do this is with the phrase “thanks for the heads up”.
When used as a noun in this way, we are stating the somebody’s warning has helped us to avoid negative outcomes.
Whilst it does break rules, it’s allowed to. Why? Because we say so!
Everybody from action heroes, to journalists, to yourself and your friends use “heads” up on a regular basis.
Martin is the founder of Grammarhow.com. With top grades in English and teaching experience at university level, he is on a mission to share all of his knowledge about the English language. Having written thousands of articles, he is an expert at explaining difficult topics in a simple language.
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