Today we’re going to explore an example of the type of figurative language called an idiom: a common expression that can’t be understood but the literal meaning of the words, but is known to people within the language. This lesson’s English idiom is: “Thanks for the heads up!” Let’s find out what it means.
First, some background. My name is Lillie, and I’ve been an English teacher for almost twenty years. I’m also an artist, and hand-draw the illustrations for my lessons, as show in my onomatopoeia examples article. On to the definition!
“Heads Up,” Literally
Before we get to the meaning of “Thanks for the heads up!” we need to explain the interjection, “HEADS UP!” when it’s used literally. Above, I’ve drawn a cartoon showing how it functions.
As you can see in the illustration, people shout, “Heads up!” in a literal way when there is an object (such as a basketball) hurling towards someone’s noggin, but the person who is about to be hit is oblivious. For safety, they’re being told to look up so they can avoid the projectile.
In these literal situations, “HEADS UP!” is usually shouted loudly, as a sentence unto itself. It’s often used in sports, but is also seen in any situation where objects may be falling from above, such as a construction site. The correct reaction when someone shouts “Heads up!” is to immediately look up to spot the danger, then leap out of harm’s way.
The Figurative Meaning of a “Heads Up”
Just as with our lesson on the definition of suspense, knowing the literal meaning of a phrase can help give a clue to its figurative one. So what does “giving a heads up” (sometimes written with a hyphen as “heads-up”) mean when a ball is NOT zipping towards someone’s face?
Figuratively, “to give a heads up” means to let someone know that something is happening or about to happen. It’s meant to be a helpful advance warning, so the listener can prepare or take action accordingly — kind of like an overt foreshadowing. Here’s my goofy illustration to help you remember this…
In my cartoon above, a concerned woman is saying, “Just so you know, sir, a head of lettuce escaped from the farm and may be lurking around.” This well-meaning lass is attempting to give a “heads up” — to provide useful information that she thinks the listener might appreciate in order to lock his windows to prevent the runaway lettuce from breaking in.
In a comical bout of dramatic irony, however, the “heads up” is actually being given to the head of lettuce, himself, who the woman doesn’t recognize because he’s in a clever mustached disguise! The lettuce giggles, “Er, thanks for the heads up!” Hehe.
“Thanks for the Heads Up”
Now that we have this background, we can deduce that the idiom, “Thanks for the Heads Up!” is a polite way to give appreciation for someone who’s provided a useful warning or given background information. It’s essentially saying, “Thanks for letting me know about that! I didn’t have that information before, and it will come in handy.”
VIDEO: Defining “Heads Up”
“Heads Up,” “Heads-Up,” or “Head’s Up?”
So, is the expression written “heads up” with a space in the middle (like “no one“) or with a hyphen in the middle, like “heads-up?” In fact, both are accepted and correct.
“Thanks for the Heads Up” Meaning, in Sum
Now that you have learned about this idiom, you can say, “Hey Ms. Marshall, thanks for the heads up about this common phrase! Now I’ll know to expect that people say it a lot — and I’ll be prepared, knowing what it means.” To that I reply: “You’re welcome!”
Want more? Check out “Types of Conflict in Literature.”
The author and artist, Lillie Marshall, is a National Board Certified Teacher of English who has been a public school educator since 2003, and an experienced Reiki practitioner since 2018. All art on this site is original and hand-drawn by Lillie. She launched DrawingsOf.com Educational Cartoons in 2020, building upon the success of her other sites, AroundTheWorldL.com (established 2009), TeachingTraveling.com (founded 2010), and ReikiColors.com. Subscribe to Lillie’s monthly newsletter, and follow @WorldLillie on social media to stay connected!