'Up in the Air': Definition, Meaning, Examples

By Carly Forsaith, updated on September 7, 2023

Curious about the expression 'up in the air?' In that case, you're in the right place. In this article, you'll learn what it means and when to use it appropriately.

If you just want the short version, though, here it is:

  • When something is 'up in the air,' it means it is undecided and uncertain. 

What Does 'Up in the Air' Mean?

The saying 'up in the air' is an idiom you can use when you want to describe something as unsettled. If you're not sure yet what the outcome of a situation is going to be, then this is the correct expression to use. Usually, matters are uncertain because you're waiting for other factors to be decided on first.

For example, imagine that you had been making plans to move to another country, but your plans had to be placed on hold because the sale of your house fell through. You aren't sure how long it will take to find another buyer, and the school term is starting up again soon, and you need to sign your daughter up for a school.

You might say:

Our relocation plans are up in the air at the moment; it may even have to wait until next year. 

So yes, when the outcome is unknown, uncertain, when something is not entirely set in stone, or when there's a disagreement on how to move forward, you can use the phrase 'up in the air.'

This phrase is an idiom, which means that you can't interpret its meaning literally based on the individual words. You just have to know what it means.

Where Does 'Up in the Air' Come From?

The origin of this idiom is unknown. Some sources state that it's been in use since the 1700s (although back then, it was just 'in the air'), but no one seems to really know where it comes from or why people started saying it.

The thing with idioms is that the actual words don't make much sense to us now. They are dead metaphors: expressions that have been used so much over time that the original imagery of their meaning has been lost. But back when they started being used, they absolutely made sense.

With 'up in the air,' however, we don't seem to be able to trace the original meaning behind the idiom. However, it's been suggested that it may be referring to the act of tossing a coin to make a decision and not knowing what the outcome is until the coin lands, or in other words, while it's 'up in the air.'

Examples In Sentences

Now we've covered the idiom's meaning, let's look at some examples of 'up in the air' in sentences.

Our plans to go on vacation are up in the air because my husband can't get the time off work.

Her project to build skateparks are up in the air until they receive permission from the city.

We're not sure yet what we'll do for mother's day; it's all up in the air.

With so much being up in the air right now it's difficult to make any decisions.

They'd planned a joint birthday party but the plans are all up in the air now.

What with my employment contract terminating in June, my mortgage application is up in the air.

While the decision as to whether to promote you is still up in the air, we'd still like to compliment you on a job well done. 

I don't think she can achieve the goal she set for herself, but at the moment it's all up in the air.

Whether or not they'll release a second season is still very much up in the air.

He missed the deadline to apply so whether or not they'll accept his application is up in the air.

Other Ways to Say 'Throw in the Towel'

Of course, 'up in the air' is not the only way to say that something is uncertain.

Here are some other words and phrases that mean the same thing:

  • yet to be decided
  • in the works
  • undetermined
  • unsettled
  • haphazard
  • hit and miss
  • awaiting action
  • in a state of suspension

Final Thoughts

To summarize, when something is 'up in the air,' it means you really don't know what's going to happen with it. This might be due to conflict, disagreement, or an unplanned event taking place. Whatever the reason, if you're in the dark about where a situation is going, it's 'up in the air.'

Are you ready to learn more English phrases and expand your vocabulary? Be sure to check out our idioms blog for idioms, expressions, sayings, and more! 

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Written By:
Carly Forsaith
Carly Forsaith is one of the lead freelance writers for WritingTips.org. Carly is a copywriter who has been writing about the English language for over 3 years. Before that, she was a teacher in Thailand, helping people learn English as a second language. She is a total grammar nerd and spends her time spotting language errors on signs and on the internet.

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