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eat vs. have breakfast

I came across a question as I was writing some ELT material. What are the pragmatic implications when choosing between the verbs “to eat” or “to have” (breakfast)?

I might be off base here, but it seems to me that when choosing 1. “to eat breakfast” the real question is whether or not one had breakfast. While 2. “to have breakfast” seems to evoke the act and time of having breakfast itself and everything that goes with it.

For instance:

1. Did you eat breakfast today? 2. I always have breakfast before lunch.

What do you all think?

  • February 17, 2005
  • Posted by eduardo
  • Filed in Usage

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Actually, I find that "to eat" and "to have" breakfast are almost completely interchangeable; I cannot think of a single situation in which using one would have different implications than the other.

In addition, I disagree with the distinction you make between the two (that is, if I'm understanding it correctly). For example, I could say both "I usually eat breakfast at 8 in the morning," and "I usually have breakfast at 8 in the morning." I could also say both "I ate breakfast this morning at 8," and "I had breakfast this morning at 8." As far as I can tell, there is no difference at all in their meanings.

lamont2718 February 17, 2005, 2:35pm

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Don't you know you can't have your breakfast and eat it too? ( :)

Both "eating breakfast" and "having breakfast" sound natural to me, and there is nothing that would make me choose one over the other.

JB February 17, 2005, 3:34pm

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"To eat breakfast" is just more precise than "to have breakfast." You can almost always substitute "to have" for "to eat."

Some weird context exceptions:

"My baby won't eat his mashed bananas." (You can't really say, "My baby won't have his mashed bananas," because he does really have them--he just won't eat them.)

"The stranded sailors ate two of their shipmates before they were rescued." (Someone braver than I am must explain why "had" just won't do here.)

"Monsieur Flambe is a circus performer who eats fire." ("Fire eater" is the special name for this, ah, profession.)

speedwell2 February 18, 2005, 3:13am

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Well when it comes to breakfast, the converse substitution will always make sense as well; "to eat" breakfast will always be able to substitute "to have" breakfast and retain the original implications. For this reason, I don't think one is more precise than the other (at least in the case of breakfast; speedwell is absolutely right in his analysis of the exceptions).

Going back to the original difference that Eduardo made, I must revise my first opinion. While it is a valid distinction that you can make, most people will not make it and continue to use "to eat breakfast" and "to have breakfast" interchangeably.

lamont2718 February 18, 2005, 3:45am

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Thank you very much Speedweel, JB and Sean for taking the time to clear that one.


Eduardo February 21, 2005, 4:51am

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"You can’t eat your cake and have it too"

Now, I don't mean do be fussy here, but the proverb above posed a question to me about whether eat and have, expressing incompatibilty in that saying, are not entirely interchangeable.

Eduardo February 21, 2005, 4:58am

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Notice the qualifiers used in the past few comments; we can use "eat" and "have" interchangably--but that's when speaking about breakfast. As speedwell pointed out, the two verbs cannot be switched for each other so easily in other situations.

In this proverb, "have" is used in its most basic meaning: to possess. Thus, the proverb means that once you eat the cake, you don't have it any more. On a more general level, it means that you can't have everything you want.

lamont2718 February 21, 2005, 9:49am

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To me, I have always been under the assumption that to eat breakfast is actually "eating something" like toast, bagel, etc. However, to have breakfast doesn't always involve eating, for example drinking a glass of juice. I was hesistant to cite another example using coffee as the subject. That is; can one say: "My breakfast is drinking a cup of coffee only.". As oppose to: "My breakfast is having a cup of coffee only.".
So, anyone, please elaborate "to drink" Vs. "to have".

Unggit Tjitradjaja February 21, 2005, 10:25am

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To illustrate, using caffeine:

"I have a cup of coffee"
- I currently possess a cup of coffee
- Or, as for "I drink a cup of coffee"

"I drink a cup of coffee"
- Not generally used, except with some kind of condition ("I drink a cup of coffee when I get to work", or "What do you do when you get to the office?" - "I drink a cup of coffee")

"I am having a cup of coffee"
- I am drinking a cup of coffee

"I am drinking a cup of coffee"
- I am drinking a cup of coffee

"I had a cup of coffee"
- A cup of coffee was in my possession, but now it is not
- I drank a cup of coffee

"I drank a cup of coffee"
- I had a cup of coffee, which I was drinking. I finished drinking the coffee.

"I was having a cup of coffee"
- I was drinking a cup of coffee; I probably did not finish drinking it.

Persephone Imytholin February 22, 2005, 12:37am

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Thanks for that "Coffee Enlightenment", Persephone!

Unggit Tjitradjaja February 22, 2005, 3:51am

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Why don't we all just say "do breakfast".

gerry merchant March 8, 2005, 9:06am

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Because the "doing" of a meal is something you must do on a prearranged basis and in company.

When the Hollywood producer tells the star, "Have your girl call my girl and we'll do lunch," he's speaking Los Angeles slang for something a Houston oil executive might render as "Tell your gal to call mine and we'll meet for a steak," or an Atlanta office manager, "Have your secretary schedule us a time for a lunch meeting downtown."

speedwell2 March 8, 2005, 9:21am

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To " have " breakfast is to " eat " and "drink" something.
To " eat" breakfast is to only eat something.
Thus, have is more convenient and makes more sense to use, especially when you're teaching ESL students.

Brandley September 25, 2016, 9:41pm

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I have another question, but related to this: is the word breakfast a verb? That is, can we say 'I breakfasted eggs this morning.'? Or for that matter, can we say '- What are you doing? -I'm breakfasting,' instead of 'I'm having a breakfast.'? Thanks

Rukfas October 17, 2017, 5:16pm

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Yes     No