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When I feel grateful about someone, I sometimes use the phrase

keep up the good work

after I have thanked them.

I only use this when my feeling is that they:

  • are doing good things and/or
  • have just been doing a good thing.

However, I sometimes worry when they:

  • have been working for free, so they are somehow sacrificing themselves and/or
  • have been doing something good just because I asked them as a service.

In any or both of the latter two cases, is it still a good phrase to use? Or can it be hurting?
My worry is that, when understood litteraly and not like an idiom, this phrase actually means:

I want you to keep on.

Which sounds rude to me if the person has been kind enough to volunteer. What I actually mean is:

I am glad that you did/are doing this. There should be more and more of people like you in the world.

Is my feeling correct?
Is this phrase idiomatic enough to be simply understood as "thank you", or should I stop using it in the last two cases?
If so, what would be an alternative?

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"Keep up the good work" is a nice expression, but because it's phrased as an imperative, it's one that can have unintended nuance.

One common use of this phrase is of a superior complimenting and encouraging an inferior in the workplace. For example, suppose your boss asks you to do a project, and you show her some preliminary results. She might respond:

This is what I'm looking for. Keep up the good work!

to indicate approval, but also to tell you that the project is not complete and that you should keep working on it. It comes across as kind of an order.

I agree that if someone is doing a favor for you, it can be an odd expression. It may sound like you're asserting authority over them, when they would rather feel like your relationship is as equals (or even that you owe them).

The exception is when someone is working on something that does not relate to your own benefit. For example, suppose a friend is doing a good job on a report for school. You might say:

Looks like you're almost done. Keep up the good work!

as a way to encourage her to complete the report. In this case it's more like similar expressions such as "Don't give up!" or "Hang in there!", which, while phrased as imperatives, are not interpreted as orders.

  • Well, this confirms my feeling in a thorough way. Thank you :) Do you have any alternative in the equal situation, when someone is doing a favor to you? – iago-lito Nov 23 '18 at 9:31
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    @iago-lito There are many ways to offer encouragement to someone, but I can't think of any standard idiomatic expression. Anything that indicates cooperation would be fine, "This is really good, Let's see if we can't finish it up by tomorrow." – Andrew Nov 23 '18 at 11:07
  • I see. "this is really good" is sincere. Notice yet that "we can finish it up" is a hypocrite statement in the case the person is doing a favor (because you are not actually involved in the process). What about "I am glad you are doing this"? – iago-lito Nov 23 '18 at 11:11
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    @iago-lito You can say, "Thanks for helping me out," any any number of variations. I was just trying to keep close to the meaning of "keep up the good work." Also, it's sometimes fine to use "we" when the other person is doing the work, but I think the nuances of this aren't really about English, but rather something universal to many languages. – Andrew Nov 23 '18 at 11:13
  • And I guess you're right :) Thank you again anyway! – iago-lito Nov 23 '18 at 11:18

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