As a way of congratulating someone on starting a new project, I recently said "Keep it up". The other person said that "keep it up" isn't a phrase one would use outside of work and is mostly used by someone with authority - particularly to show approval.

How does it sound to you - would you say it puts the person saying it as someone with higher authority or not?


  • 10
    A related expression is "Keep up the good work!"
    – nschneid
    Commented Dec 25, 2021 at 19:43
  • 2
    It sounds patronizing if said to a peer.
    – John Douma
    Commented Dec 27, 2021 at 11:31
  • It's a totally different context but the phrase can also be used aggressively. If someone is doing something annoying or inappropriate, 'keep it up' (perhaps followed by something like 'and see what happens') can be meant as a threat.
    – JimmyJames
    Commented Dec 27, 2021 at 18:02
  • 1
    Pretty much any phrase can sound aggressive depending on how it is said. Commented Dec 28, 2021 at 1:17
  • @Tom But this specific phrase is commonly used specifically as a threat.
    – JimmyJames
    Commented Dec 28, 2021 at 17:26

5 Answers 5


To be honest, nobody really minds this kind of vague congratulatory message. Few people are going to analyse or dissect the grammar or meaning.

However "Keep it up" really means "continue to do as you have been doing, in the face of adversity". That makes it a strange message to give to someone starting a new project.

It can certainly be used out of a work context, But it does suggest some kind of slightly paternal relationship. The fact that it is an imperative gives it a slight flavour of superiority. It implies "I have judged your previous efforts to be good and I am instructing you to continue in the same manner", which prompts the question "What gave you the right to judge the previous efforts?"

In such contexts, I usually just go for "good luck" or "best wishes". These are safe, boring and anodyne. s I said, nobody really analyzes these messages.

  • 6
    "What gave you the right to judge the previous efforts?" - if you say "well done", that's pretty much judging their efforts. The problem here seems to be less with that and more with instructing them to continue.
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Dec 26, 2021 at 15:02
  • 1
    @NotThatGuy, why did you bring up "well done"? Neither OP nor James mentioned that phrase. If I started a new project at work and a colleague said "well done" I'd be a bit puzzled for the reasons James stated for "keep it up".
    – Kirk Woll
    Commented Dec 26, 2021 at 21:55
  • 3
    @KirkWoll I brought up "well done" because that's a fairly common phrase that doesn't carry any negative connotation amongst equals. I might just have accidentally omitted "also" from my last comment. It is also a phrase to "judge their efforts", so logically either you have to have the same problem with "well done" or you have to concede that the issue is not with "judging their efforts" (or you have to have some justification for why the argument applies to one but not the other).
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Dec 27, 2021 at 1:30
  • @KirkWoll The answer states "What gave you the right to judge the previous efforts", and my comment exclusively addresses that. The fact that say "well done" or "keep it up" may also be a puzzling message is entirely irrelevant to the point I'm making (unless you're puzzled not about the fact that you haven't done anything that could be judged as good yet, but rather about what gave that person the right to judge, which I personally wouldn't call "puzzling", but your mileage may vary).
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Dec 27, 2021 at 1:36
  • Thanks for the discussion guys, it really came in useful.
    – nocomment
    Commented Dec 27, 2021 at 8:24

"Keep it up" can be used by a boss or other authority figure. It can also be used in other contexts. It is commonly used by sports fans to or about an athlete after a successful performance. It can be used by peers in a school, work, or sports context to encourage someone. I have had it said to me by a bridge partner after a successful play.

I recall being at a minor league baseball game where home runs were followed by a chant "Keep it up {person}, Keep it up" ({person} being replaced by the hitter's name.)

It can also be used in a negative or threatening sense.

  • Parent to child: "Keep it up and you'll be in trouble."
  • Mobster to informer: "Keep it up and you won't be around long."
  • Was your bridge partner more experienced or higher-ranked than you? i.e.: an authority figure? Commented Dec 26, 2021 at 19:24
  • @Owen Reynolds No, I had been playing for quite a few years longer, and we were of roughly equal skill, although I had more ranking points. Commented Dec 26, 2021 at 19:28

I share the perspective of the person who gave you that advice. Care should be taken with this expression

I would expect to hear this only from someone with a vested interest in the activity, and who was explicitly in a position to tell me, or invite me to, continue it. Someone who controlled, or at least shared, the decision as to whether I would continue.

If I was providing a service to someone, say pouring them a drink, and I paused to see if they'd had enough, they might say "yes, please, keep it up". Tone of voice would be important; the wrong tone could turn a friendly gesture into an on-demand service.

If the activity in question was entirely my own, say a hobby, or a chore, and someone with no interest in the work said that to me, I'd wonder where that was coming from. Like they think they have a right to order me back to my own work? A better choice would be something like "I don't want to bother you, I'll let you get back to it." You can certainly admire the work they've already done, and you can bolster their perseverance with phrases like "you got this! you can do this!", but "keep it up" crosses the line into directly telling them they must continue, so you should ask yourself, am I in that role.


  • Thanks for this, really appreciate it. It's interesting how my intention was miles away from what I really said. It makes more sense now.
    – nocomment
    Commented Dec 27, 2021 at 8:22

In my own experience, I use "keep it up" as a short version of "keep up the good work", and I use this not as someone with vested interest, some authority, or anything other than encouragement for the target person to keep doing good work.

It doesn't matter if this is something they are doing at work, for themselves, for their partner/spouse/kids, or whatever, just as long as they enjoy it and are getting what they want from it. They could simply be getting close to paying off a loan and be expressing excitement about how they'll be out from under that debt and stress. Maybe they are boasting about how long they've been without a drink or a smoke.

I'm definitely not stating it as an authoritative demand, but rather as encouragement.

Yes, there are times when a boss/supervisor might say "keep it up" in reference to working towards a goal, a pay raise, a promotion, or something, but that doesn't mean it always has to be used that way.

And yes, there are negative connotations, like David Siegel's answer mentions: "Keep it up, if you want a black eye."


Rather than "authority", as in "higher position in the workplace hierarchy", I would say the phrases suggests status more subtly. For instance, in your example, saying "keep it up!" suggests that you're in a position to both see for the other person that continued effort is good for them and maybe others, as well as to potentially affirm the other person (as if, for instance, they weren't sure if they should continue). It also suggests a bit of distance -- "keep it up" suggests that the responsibility for that effort rests on the target, not on the speaker. It's a little more encouraging than "you keep doing that!", but it does sort of disinvolve the speaker. For instance, a parent might say that to their child if the child was getting good grades, both exerting authority by telling the child to continue behaving, but also expressing relief from needing to intervene. A boss in the workplace might say these things for the same reasons: they see how their workplace is structured in a way that is privileged compared to the listener, they and others benefit from the effort, and they feel no need to be involved in making that effort the way that the listener is, and they of course may have to genuinely affirm their workers to keep them working.

In a peer conversational setting though, you might say this if your friend was working on a project that you could see was good for them, and that you maybe either have no interest or experience in. It still expresses that the speaker (you) is an outside party with information that is applicable to their situation, even if that information is literally just that the project is a good idea. So "keep it up" definitely isn't necessarily a serious power-move by any means, but it may convey a very slightly elevated status and distance. Many people associate such distance with a workplace dynamic, where workers often have the opportunity to express approval for each others' efforts at distance. But it could be totally appropriate between friends, especially if you're talking about a personal accomplishment that isn't related to you.

I think your friend was maybe being a bit picky when they responded this way!

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