Thanks For The Heads Up: Meaning, How to Use, Alternatives

Thanks For The Heads Up: Meaning, How to Use, Alternatives

We’ve all heard the phrase “thanks for the heads up” at least once – by watching an action or superhero movie, while chatting with a friend, or while learning English as a second (or third? Maybe fourth?) language. Still, like many other idioms, common phrases, and compounds, its meaning and usage can be more than one. The primary use for “thanks for the heads up” is “thank you for a useful piece of information that will prevent me from facing an otherwise unexpected negative event.” 

But does this term apply to all occasions and relations between speakers? Are there any synonyms we could use? Here’s what you need to know:

Origins and Meaning – Thanks For The Heads Up

First and foremost: what exactly is a “heads up?” Although it is not possible to pinpoint the exact moment in time where the two words put together acquired a new, specific meaning, we do know this:

  • According to none other than The Wall Street Journal, “heads up” appeared for the first time as a compound in the 1780s song “John Bumpkin Upon Drill” as a way to encourage soldiers to be brave and vigilant by standing with their head high
  • In the early 20th century, it was mainly used as a “baseball and football term signifying alertness, action…”: if a ball has been hit so hard that it reached the sky, the player literally has to look up to make sure that their face won’t be the place where a new impact will occur.
  • “Heads up” can either be used as a noun expressing a warning, or as an adjective to indicate someone who is alert and vigilant, as stated above.
  • When talking about someone who gave you a heads up, you could also say that you were given a word of caution, a warning

How to Use?

“Thanks for the heads-up” is a versatile phrasal verb that can be used in an informal setting, as well as a formal one. Here are a couple of examples:

Informal Setting

Roommate 1: Are you heading out to get groceries?
Roommate 2: Yeah, you need anything?
Roommate 1: I’m good. If you get there by car, make sure to avoid X Street, the road is clogged.
Roommate 2: I will. Thanks for the heads-up

In this exchange, Roommate 1’s “heads-up” alerts Roommate 2 of something that might cause them to waste time or get stuck in traffic, therefore allowing them to plan a different route or another means of transportation (they might go get the groceries by walking to the place, or by riding a bike on the dedicated lane)

The above conversation could easily occur in both spoken or written form: given an informal setting, “thanks for the heads up” works either way. 

Formal Setting

Despite being considered a predominantly informal phrasal verb, “thanks for the heads up” can be used in a slightly more formal, business-related setting, such as between colleagues; it primarily occurs during spoken conversations:

Colleague 1: I just come from the vending machine. The thing is probably broken and might need maintenance. Please don’t bother with it and go straight for the other one on the second floor
Colleague 2: Ok, thanks for the heads up. 

In this case, Colleague 2 will avoid a waste of time and money thanks to the warning that Colleague 1 has given them, considering that they have experienced first-hand the frustration of taking way too much time to get a snack or coffee and having to do that in a rush so that they would not be reprimanded or risked to miss a call.


According to context and the aforementioned closeness among speakers, the beauty of language resides in its ability to convey the same meaning in different ways. Therefore, since we have touched upon the usage and meaning of “thanks for the heads up,” we are now going to take a deep dive into some synonyms and observe when to correctly use them, starting from the most formal to the most informal one:

  • Thank you for the advance notice. This phrase is almost exclusively used in written, formal correspondence; since the context in which it is used pertains to the business world, it indirectly emphasizes the importance of the information given.
  • Thanks for letting me know. While this might look like an informal or “neutral” way of thanking another person, it is actually a fairly common statement in business/work related settings for both internal and external communication (that is, correspondence among employees of the same company, or between a client and an employee) 
  • Thanks for the warning
  • Thanks for tipping me off. “to tip, someone off” is a phrasal verb which, along with the similarity to “thanks for the heads up,” possesses a curious nuance: according to the definition given by the Cambridge Dictionary, it means “to secretly give an information about something that is usually illegal or dishonest.” The most frequent use can be heard in movies when a robbery or crime does not succeed because someone “tipped off the police,” hence informing them of what would happen so that they could intervene and prevent it. However, considering the same context, it can also be used oppositely, namely to alert someone that they might have a chance to commit said crime. 

How We Communicate

  • Closeness and Boundaries

Every conversation implies a certain degree of closeness between (or among) speakers: whether you are talking to your partner or your teacher, it is crucial to know which and how many boundaries are set and to respect them, as well as to be able to understand and empathize with the counterpart. Some relations are defined by said different degrees, such as between a teacher and a student or a supervisor and an employee. In this case, unless clearly stated otherwise, one of the speakers might need to interact in a more formal or “respectful” manner with the authority figure.

If your teacher warns you about something, you would not normally use “thanks for the heads up”!

Remember the two colleagues mentioned before? They are a clear example of a matching degree of closeness: the two of them might not be close friends outside the workplace, but they supposedly share the same day-to-day routine and might have developed a certain degree of mutual understanding: they both know that a 5-minute break at the vending machine is a way to temporarily unplug from their duties and mental effort, not an additional annoyance.  This is why “thanks for the heads-up” works in their conversation.

While you might stumble across a family or couple whose exchanges are marked by a formal and sometimes pretentious vocabulary – usually as a way to communicate high status and class – informal relations with a matching degree of closeness tend to be defined by a spontaneous and effortless communication in terms of lexicon, which might include inside jokes, nicknames, and made-up phrases.  

  • Social Norms: Gratitude

Along with the respect of boundaries comes the constant (and consistent) requirement to adhere to one or more social norms – if anything, the two are closely intertwined.

 “Thanks for the heads up” falls under the umbrella of the endless expressions we have created to convey a crucial item in interpersonal communication: gratitude. It is expected from us to express gratitude in return for an action that is deemed helpful to us: someone does something so that it has a positive impact on our current situation, or because they keep us in high, positive regard, so much so that they decide to give us the information we can benefit from.

Gratitude works in every degree of closeness and is often used as a way to measure someone’s ability to recognize effort, good intentions, person’s availability in terms of time, manners, and much more. 

To Summarize

While the exact origin of the term is unknown, its meaning is clear: thank you for giving me a warning or a piece of useful information that might have resulted in something negative for me. You can say that a person is “heads up” to indicate that they are alert. It is possible to use “thanks for the heads up” in formal and informal settings, as long as there is a matching degree of closeness among speakers: you might say it to your colleague or roommate, but not to your supervisor at work or school.

Informal Synonyms might be thanks for tipping me off, thanks for telling me. Formal Synonyms include “thanks for the advance notice” “thank you for letting me know.” Communication (and therefore conversations) implies a degree of closeness between speakers that dictates how they will talk to each other, thus creating clear boundaries. A matching degree of closeness makes it easier for people to communicate and empathize with each other. Expressing gratitude works in any degree of closeness and might tell a lot about someone.

Also read How to get promoted at work?

Thanks For The Heads Up: Meaning, How to Use, Alternatives

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