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I like to say this in jest when cats & dogs munch loudly on their dinner: "Your cat Molly is eating at me again!" I'm not sure what's "off" about it. Is it in fact incorrect, or is it merely awkward?

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3 Answers 3

up vote 7 down vote accepted

It sounds like a humorously intentional misuse of the phrase "eating at;" ordinarily when something is eating at you, it means that there is an unresolved situation, and that you are unhappy leaving it unresolved and are distracted and annoyed by it. Your use of the phrase to refer to a pet directing the noise of its consumption in your direction is incongruously literal, and therefore funny.

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I can't give a better answer, though I'd like to add you're using a verb in a non-standard way. While humorous when you think about it, it isn't expected to be used like that, and generally if you have to explain the joke, it's not as funny heh. –  Brett Allen Feb 20 '11 at 6:13
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@Aequitarum Custos: I'm sure most people would get the joke without explanation. –  Orbling Feb 20 '11 at 6:56
    
Most do, but it's just a small crack; not worth the explanation. @Hellion Reading between the lines, I think the answer to my question is that it's grammatically correct, but awkward because of the more common colloquialism. Does that sound right? –  Cheezmeister Feb 20 '11 at 21:16
    
I'd say that's correct, yes. –  Hellion Feb 20 '11 at 22:34

That particular usage seems to parallel a usage particular to therapeutic psychology and interpersonal dynamics. An example of that might be:

You aren't caring for your mother, you're caring at her, playing the martyr and making sure she knows how very inconvenient it is for you.

It carries the same sense as "your cats are making a lot of noise while eating because they know it bothers me (or because they want me to be very aware of the fact that they're eating and I'm not, etc.)".

If that is the sense in which you're using it, it is not standard, but it would certainly be understood by anyone who has been exposed to, say, Dr. Phil.

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A lot of words are used this way, I often use "talking at", for people who are not holding a conversation with another person ("talking with"), but just reeling off a monologue or diatribe in the direction of another. –  Orbling Feb 20 '11 at 17:43

"eating at me" is usually used in the context of having a corrosive or erosive effect -- These financial problems are really eating at me (although eating away at me may be a more common form). Your usage in the sense of someone (or something) deliberately directing eating noises, etc. at you is a bit unusual, though valid.

The movie Tom Jones was famous for the scene where a couple used a dining experience -- of eating at each other -- as foreplay.

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