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I'd like to understand when I should use "slice" or "piece", for example:

"He's eaten three slices of pizza, and two pieces of cake".

Why do I have to use "slice" with pizza, but "piece" with cake?

In Brazilian Portuguese, my native language, we can use whichever we want to, especially colloquially.

  • 1
    Rest your mind. You can have a "slice of pizza", a "piece of pizza", a "slice of pie", a "piece of pie". But the rules change when you start talking about non-pie-shaped foods :) – Dan Bron Oct 16 '14 at 16:13
  • @Dan: You can have a "slice of bread", "slice of meatloaf", or "slice of cake", even when these food items are non-pie-shaped (that is, loaf-shaped things also have slices). – Peter Shor Oct 16 '14 at 16:16
  • This ontology for English verbs of cutting might be useful. – John Lawler Oct 16 '14 at 17:24
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A slice is always a piece, but a piece is not always a slice.

In general, a slice is a portion created with a single cut, and either it is wedge-shaped, or it is relatively thin in one of its dimensions because it is a cross-sectional cut of a much longer object; while a piece is a portion created by any means at all (cutting, tearing, shattering, biting, etc.), and of any shape or size.

So if you are dividing up a poundcake (which is shaped like a small loaf of bread), you will often get a slice of it; but if you are dividing up a sheetcake (a large, flat, rectangular cake; commonly used for birthdays), you will get a piece of it.

Likewise, you can get a slice of pie (after the first piece, every subsequent piece is created with just a single cut) or pizza. (Unless you're at one of those crazy places where they cut pizza into squares, in which case you are getting a piece, not a slice.)

Oddly enough, a slice of cheese almost always refers to a flat piece; if you are taking a pie-shaped piece of cheese from a wheel, it will be called a wedge.

  • It seems like the rules on this are kind of fuzzy, so if a non-native speaker wants to be safe, they can just use "piece" all the time. There seem to be times where we say things like "piece of meat" even though a single thrusting motion was made with a knife to cut it. Although I'd understand what you meant, if you said "give me a slice of meat" (especially if it was thick), I'd look at you funny. – Calphool Oct 16 '14 at 20:24
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    It's certainly safe saying "piece" all the time, but slices are not that hard to define. A slice of bacon, a slice of ham, a slice of roast beef; "carve me a nice thick slice of turkey breast, please." – Hellion Oct 16 '14 at 20:36
  • Maybe it's regional. Slice seems to rarely get used in reference to meat where I'm from. – Calphool Oct 20 '14 at 15:03
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(I'm not a native speaker, so take this with a grain of salt)

IMHO, "piece" is used for uncountable nouns, like "fruit" ("piece of fruit"), for one in a group or kind of things, or some abstract part of a whole. "Slice" seems to me should be used when you want a portion of something that can be divided in parts.

So, in the case of pizza, asking for "a slice of pizza" means a slice of a pizza, a portion; while "a piece of pizza" means that you want some pizza, in any shape or size.

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