I have a query about the meaning of 'on earth'. Here is an example.

What on earth are you doing under the table?

At here, what is the purpose of 'on earth'?


2 Answers 2


It's an expression, similar to what the hell.

It expresses the speaker's disbelief or amazement towards what the hearer is doing. Normally this expression is used for things that someone is doing that are considered to be either really weird or really bad.

  • Thanks then How much different between 'what the hell' and 'on earth'? I am familliar with what the hell rather on earth. Actually this is the first time what I heard it
    – gmotree
    Jul 10, 2015 at 6:20
  • "What the hell" seems a lot more infornal and perhaps even rude. "What on earth" is less informal.
    – Vlammuh
    Jul 10, 2015 at 6:27
  • 1
    It's really a case of 'pick a word'. "What the…" can actually stand alone, as the audience will anticipate their own word. "What on earth" is possibly the most polite form, useable to any audience. From there they decline rapidly. Jul 10, 2015 at 8:25
  • 2
    Apart from what the ... and what on ..., there is also the what in ... option, as in "What in ...'s name are you doing?", where the ... can be a deity of your choice, or other options like heaven.
    – oerkelens
    Jul 10, 2015 at 9:19
  • 1
    "What on Earth..." signifies total ignorance and lack of prior knowledge. "What the hell..." tends more to signify shock, surprise and disdain. Jul 10, 2015 at 15:01

What on earth

This expression is used to add emphasis to questions. In other words, you use the expression when you are extremely surprised, angry, or confused about something. The phrase is used in informal English.

You can use "what the hell" instead, which is also informal, but it's impolite.


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