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What are the differences between the terms "How come ... we eat breakfast?" and "Why ... do we eat breakfast?"

The words phrase based in how seems really awkward to me, and I don't understand this convention.

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In German, you can do something similar: wieso (literally "how so") in place of warum ("why"). –  Kosmonaut Nov 24 '10 at 20:57
There's a lot of things English gets from German, that could be the reason. –  Incognito Nov 24 '10 at 21:01
I believe "How come ...?" is a contraction of "How does it come to be that ...?" or "How comes it [to be] that ...?" –  Robusto Nov 24 '10 at 21:02
English also has "what for", which can be used instead of "why" in certain places. –  Kosmonaut Nov 24 '10 at 21:10
@Kosmonaut: In German, you could also say weshalb (roughly "on whose part"), weswegen (roughly "because of what"), or even, if you wanted to be funky, wes Grundes (roughly "on what reason's behalf"). (@_@) –  RegDwigнt Nov 24 '10 at 21:11

4 Answers 4

up vote 19 down vote accepted

"How come...we eat breakfast?" is less formal. As Robusto commented, it's a contraction of something like: "How does it come to be that ...?" or "How has it come to pass that...?"

Also, it's not as confrontational. "How come you turned up late?" is softer than "Why did you turn up late?". It is a subtle mechanism that allows us to drop the 'do' verb from the question.

The latter is something your boss might ask. It is a very direct question expecting a direct answer, with the emphasis on "you doing".

The former is something your work colleague might ask. It is softer because it acknowledges that 'it came to be' that you were late. The emphasis is shifted off "you doing".

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I agree about formality, but not about confrontation: I would put them the other way round. I suspect this is another UK/N.Am difference: "how come" is generally less common in the UK, so when it is used it tends to be "marked" (as linguists say) i.e. chosen for a reason; and in my ears that reason will be to express truculence or disapproval. –  Colin Fine Nov 25 '10 at 11:54
yes - after sleeping on this I kind of agree that its not so black and white....for me it seems to question the 'state of affairs' as opposed to the actors of those affairs. USA thang - yes it would be unusual to hear a British person ask: 'how come we eat breakfast?'. Whereas not unusual to hear them say "How come the rich get richer and the poor get poorer?". I don't know why that is so. –  JWEnglish Nov 25 '10 at 14:40
Great answer thanks +1 –  Tarik Sep 1 '11 at 15:25
I'm in the 'how come can be softer' school. I agree with Colin that it's marked in the UK, but, in the UK and with the right intonation, for a gentle chiding rather than a fairly stark confrontation. Imagine Snape using "How come you're late, Potter?" –  Edwin Ashworth Apr 17 at 9:10

It seems that there are in general two broad but distinct types of the question Why. One asks for a cause or purpose and the other asks for an intended outcome or result. The question How come is limited to asking only the former type of Why questions and not the latter.

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That's an interesting way of looking at it. Can you give an example of 'Why-asking for an outcome'. –  JWEnglish Nov 26 '10 at 21:44
I think "how come" implies it could be a coincidence while "why" implies an intention. –  Stein G. Strindhaug Feb 22 '11 at 11:33

How come? is short for How has this come to be?

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In my view "How come + that-clause?" derives from "How does/did/has it come?".

1 How come you know so much about computers?

2 Why do you know so much about computers?

It seems there is no difference in meaning between 1 and 2. And yet there is a difference. But how to explain it? That's the question!

I wish I could explain it, but I see I get into trouble. Maybe I could say the question with why is a blunt question, whereas the question with how come indicates we admire that the person spoken to has such great knowledge about computers and that we are interested in hearing more about it, we would like to hear the whole story. I think the question with how come shows that we take a lot of interest in the other person. Perhaps one could say the question with how come has some emotional value whereas the question with why has none.

By the way Germans use the same formula: Wie kommt es, dass ...?

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