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Does the sentence "I'm at work" simply and exactly mean "I am working now", or it has a slight difference in meaning? Whether "at" has anything to do with the work place, or it's simply refering to working itself?

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This is a great question. For years, it confused me so I suspect you come from a similar situation. I will use my personal experience to explain, and trust my example can be extrapolated to other demographics.

The exact meaning of those words depends on:

  • who is saying it,
  • where they work, and
  • the proximity of their home to their work.

I grew up and lived on the farm till age forty; now I live in the city. I learned that the same words and phrases regarding "work" have different meanings for farm folk than they do in urban society. They may have yet different meanings for other demographics, but this answer will examine how "work" is spoken of on the farm and in urban society in North America.

Farm

Since my search for understanding began on the family farm, I will begin my explanation with farm definitions. Let us acknowledge that language means what speakers make it mean. In other words, just because urban dwellers far outnumber farm folk in North America, they don't get to define the language of farmers.

On the family farm, where work and play happens in the same place with the same people, "I am working now" means that "I am not playing or fooling around. I am contributing to the production of food for the family and money for the farm and bank account." After a break or meal, farm folk might push back their chairs from the table and say, "I'd better get back to work," meaning to clear the table and wash the dishes, then continue whatever tasks needed doing about the farm. For city folk, that might seem like "chores around the house." For farm folk it's work because "I am working right now."

Urban Dwellers

In my own hometown in Ontario, people say "I'm at work," when they mean that they are at their place of work.

"I'm Working" means "I have a job."

I'm working also means:

What you see me doing is paid work. I may be on the road or appear to be chatting or playing a video game, but this is part of what I'm paid to do.

"Being at Work"

Normally, when people people say, "I'm at work," their exact meaning is that they are at their place of work. Even if they are on break they will say, "I'm at work."

Culture Clash

That is what I, as a farmgirl, used to find confusing. How could a person who was sitting in the breakroom chatting and sipping coffee claim to be working?

ANSWER: They were at their workplace. Thus, they were at work though possibly not "hard at work" at the moment.

These people have a home that is not at the same place as their work. If they "take work home," or if they do their work with a computer or telephone that is at home, they might say, "I'm working from home."

Farmers don't "work from home"; they just work. I can see this kind of culture clash occur in other demographics, too, with regards to "work" references. That's what makes this such a great question.

Postscript

The examples of the postal worker and teacher were added to the question after I started writing. I did not see them until after posting my answer. I think I touched on that kind of situation indirectly.

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    Ms. Bowman, hello and thank you very much for your great response. I'm an urban citizen of Iran, trying to learn English language. But I would like farm life and natural life styles, and I sincerely appreciate your past and current life style. Nice to meet you. – Qàtrè Apr 7 at 5:55
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    Nice answer :-) I'm not sure if this factors into it, but there are a lot of office jobs that are of a creative or intellectual nature, where much of the work involves just thinking about problems - and that can definitely be done while drinking coffee or chatting with people. I wonder whether there's a difference in how people in those kinds of jobs use the phrase "at work" or "working", compared to people in other office jobs (or retail jobs or so on) where the only way to be productive is to be doing something that, for lack of a better description, looks like work. – David Z Apr 7 at 8:18
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    @DavidZ: To give an extreme example, I am in one of those intellectual office jobs, plus I do at lot of work on-site on the customer's premises. (Over 150 workdays per year traveling or at the customer.) Now, the watercooler / coffee machine / break room / kitchen is actually one of the most important places in a business, so whenever I am at the office, I spend most of my time catching up with colleagues. So, most of the time when I am working I am not at work, and most of the time I am at work, I am not working! – Jörg W Mittag Apr 7 at 8:32
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    I'm not sure this is urban vs. farm. Its just that the same phrase means different things depending on context. I regularly use it in both ways and its always clear from context which one is meant, and I've never been on a farm (except for vacation). Though I am a freelancer and do work from home... (but also in an office sometimes). – Polygnome Apr 7 at 8:46
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    And just to add one more informal meaning, I have to commute roughly 2 hours one way to my job. If someone calls and asks where I am, and I just started my commute home, I'll say "I'm still at work". I'm using "at work" in the same context as being inside the physical office, but because of the distance involved the entire town feels like "work". I don't go there for any other reason. – Nathaniel Pisarski Apr 7 at 12:38
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It would mean you are at the place where you do work.

And by "work" I mean "employment" and not "study".

A person like a postman might say they are at work when they are walking the streets delivering the mail.

A person who works from home is not likely to say that they are "at work". A teacher is not "at work" if he is at home marking books, although he can be ‘hard at work’.

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    +1, although he can be ‘hard at work’ marking! – Fivesideddice Apr 7 at 0:32
  • Thanks, I@ve used that. – James K Apr 7 at 0:45
  • Thank you for your response, Mr. K. – Qàtrè Apr 7 at 5:48
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    @Qàtrè Just in case you missed the implication, in the phrase hard at work, ‘work’ refers only to the act of working (whether it’s an actual employment or just doing the dishes at home), with no reference to the place of work. In at work by itself, it refers to the place, with no necessary reference to the act of actually doing any work (when you’re on your lunch break, you’re still physically at work). – Janus Bahs Jacquet Apr 7 at 12:10
  • @JanusBahsJacquet It's usually a lot easier to tell that from context too. "Where are you?" would get a response of "I'm at work" if you are currently at your workplace, whereas "What are you doing?" is when you're more likely to get a "I'm hard at work" response. As long as you aren't just offering the information without being prompted, it's usually trivial to tell "hard at work" vs. just "at work" from context. – JMac Apr 7 at 17:35
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People at work may not necessarily be working. If they are not working at work, they are available to be visited or to visit somewhere else, or to receive something/someone at their workplace. In this case, "I'm at work" already assumes they are not working, and is only a matter of location.

On the other hand, people at work may be working. This is why I would add a qualifier to "being at work" to distinguish it from physical location when I'm actually working at work: "I'm hard at work", "I'm busy at work", "I'm stuck at work". "I'm working" or "I'm busy" also works. :P

Context and tone is also super important. If someone knows me well, they might know that I'm usually "working" at work, in which case it's enough for me to say "I'm at work". Or if I say "I'm at work" in an abrupt and negating tone, that means I am busy working at work. If they know I'm usually not working at work, then I am saying "I'm at work" to imply that I'm available.

Confusingly, I myself do work from home, but I will say "I'm at work" if someone doesn't know that I work from home, for convenience and to tell them I'm unavailable. Most people automatically assume "I'm at work" means "I am working", hence I'm unavailable. I would not say "I'm at work" if I'm working from home but am available to be elsewhere. In this case I'd simply say, "I'm at home" because I am not working. On the other hand, if I am unavailable because I am working, I will say "I am working from home", but location doesn't really matter at this point so "I am working" also suffices.

Use this to be ultra clear:

            At work                     At home
Working     "I'm working at work"       "I'm working at/from home"
Not working "I'm not working at work"   "I'm not working at/from home"

This is less clear but is still correct:

            At work           At home
Working     "I'm at work"     "I'm working"
Not working "I'm not working" "I'm home"

This seems to be the confusing part:

            At work           At home
Working     "I'm at work"**   "I'm at work"
Not working "I'm at work"<<   "I'm home"

Pointed by <<, context and tone are important, and location matters immediately after. "I'm at work, so I'm 10 minutes away". "I'm at work, so meet me in the lobby". By **, context, tone, is important, but location no longer matters and hence is said abruptly. Most people assume **, i.e. that usually people are working at work.

I can see how all of this is confusing! Especially because people can say "I'm working" even when they are not currently working, but they are speaking more generally and will not clarify it if it's obvious they are not physically, presently doing work. Sadly, they will also say "Right now, I'm working" or "Currently, I'm working" or "I work" even when physically, presently, currently, and right now they are not working. They just mean they have a job.

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  • Thank you very much for your very good answer, Mr. Rob G. I don't know why, but the part which you do believe that "seems to be the confusing part", was very understandable for me. I believe I've learnt it that way, when studying English language. For me (as an Iranian citizen who tries to study English), being at work is being available in work time and work place (no matter if it is one's company, home, or anywhere else), and you perfectly gave me a hint on being available to do work, as being at work. Thanks again. – Qàtrè Apr 8 at 8:50

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