Suppose I meet a stranger at park. And I want to ask about his study,i.e., what course he is studying. Then which one the following is true:

  1. What do you study?
  2. What are you studying?

I think first one is correct and till now I was using that. But I just watched an English tutorial video on YouTube (here) in which they use (2). So I get confused. I am not asking about what currently he is studying.



3 Answers 3


Both are absolutely correct

and in most cases, they are interchangeable. Unfortunately, like many other things in a language, it depends on the context.

If I am a college student living in a dormitory, and I ask my room mate

What are you studying?

They might tell me which subject they are studying at that moment.

I'm studying Math right now, but I'll be studying Spanish in an hour.

If I ask my room mate

What do you study?

He/she might respond with a broader answer, since I didn't use the gerund (present participle) verb tense. To say studying suggests that the study is happening right now.

I study microbiology

In another context, let's say that you are attending a family reunion. You're going to be around a lot of relatives, and generally, people that know you. At such an event, it is inevitable that a question comes about your education, assuming you are in college/school.

Consider your uncle asking you

It is great that you're in college. What are you studying?

In this sense, the uncle is not interested in getting a course name for an answer, he's interested in the broader answer: microbiology (from above)

Also, in this sense, both questions mean the same thing. So if your uncle says, instead

It is great that you're in college. What do you study?

You would answer with the same answer.

  • Actually I am not asking for that moment. Both person are only talking at the moment, none of them is studying. Though they used -ing.
    – ramanujan
    Commented Jul 24, 2016 at 20:09

Both would be understood, but there's a slightly different flavour. I think the "-ing" form is better when talking about some ongoing education:

I'm a student at X University.

Oh, what are you studying?

contrast with

I have been taking some extra lessons.

Oh, what do you study?

Conversational English relating to medicine.

here we are talking about specific items of study, probably for a limited period of time.


The two phrases can mean the same thing.

Since the two persons are introducing themselves, 2 is inquiring about the person's major (AmE), or, as Wikipedia puts it:

the academic discipline to which an undergraduate student formally commits.

This is in contrast to, say, two friends who are inquiring about the current/up coming term. In such a case, 2 inquires about the particular subjects one might be studying that term, such as biology, math, and economics. This is because, presumably, the friends already know each other's committed disciplines.

Question 1 usually inquires about one's committed disciple. So, Kabir could also have asked 1 in this case, and it would have meant the same thing as 2. Hence, Jackie responds "B.E.". We can infer that B.E. is Jackie's committed discipline, in either case.

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