32

I once had an argument with someone about this.

Is the meaning of "A cup of hot coffee" the same as "A hot cup of coffee"?

Surprisingly I've often heard people utter either of the two, but not being a native speaker I cannot tell for sure if they are the same. Are there any grammatical problems with either?

  • 7
    Generally, it is good practice to put the modifier next to the word it modifies. – Roaring Fish Feb 11 '15 at 13:59
  • 1
    This is what NGRAM thinks:books.google.com/ngrams/… – user66974 Feb 11 '15 at 16:00
  • 5
    I personally like cups that are hot - and with cold coffee contained within. – javadba Feb 11 '15 at 18:43
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    They are both legal syntax and they both, unless you're being a PITA, mean the same thing. "Cup of hot coffee" is the more common phrase, but either would be understood by anyone other than robots and smart asses. – Hot Licks Feb 11 '15 at 19:18
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    I agree with Dan's answer (english.stackexchange.com/a/226933/107648). However, I find the use of the word "hot" to be redundant since coffee is commonly served that way. – trukvl Feb 12 '15 at 15:55
37

They are both grammatical. In principle they could have different meanings, but situations in which the difference is important are rare.

Google ngrams shows that "cup of hot coffee" has always been more common in written sources than "hot cup of coffee" - much more common between about 1850 and 1960, and since then only somewhat more common.

"Hot cup of coffee" could be seen as a kind of metonymy, though the cup is likely to be hot as well, so it can be taken literally. But ngrams shows a similar pattern with "cup of strong coffee"/"strong cup of coffee" (again with the former being much more common for a period, in this case between 1820 and 1930, and since then only somewhat more common), which can only be metonymic.

  • 15
    "cup of hot coffee" feels ordinary to me. "hot cup of coffee" feels cozier. – Eric Feb 11 '15 at 13:19
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    @Eric Right, I would use "a hot cup of coffee" to emphasize the "hot". So if my coworker comes in, I'd tell them, "there's a cup of hot coffee in the pot," but if my friend comes over and they look like a wreck, I might say, "let me make you a hot cup of coffee." – JFA Feb 11 '15 at 16:25
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    I think JFA has inadvertently raised a very important point. In "a cup of hot coffee", the word "cup" is ambiguous between the container and *the unit of volumetric measure". – Ben Voigt Feb 11 '15 at 19:02
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    I have previously heard this (putting the adjective on cup rather than coffee, even though it's really the coffee one wants to be hot) referred to as a "transferred epithet" but I do not know if that term has much currency. – David Conrad Feb 11 '15 at 21:44
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    I would say that this is synedoche in the sense of "using the whole to refer to a specific part". You're referring to the whole, the 'cup of coffee', to say that part of it, the actual liquid coffee, is hot. – DCShannon Feb 17 '15 at 15:47
21

Surely the issue is whether the 'cup' is treated distinctly from the coffee. If I want my coffee in a cup then the cup is an intrinsic part of my order, so my adjective applies to the whole caboodle

A hot cup-of-coffee

As well as placing hot in this position I might also say strong / milky / sweet / mountain-fresh

It's certainly not set in stone because I do ask for

A cup of hot coffee

But I think I would then likely be expressing a preference for a cup rather rather than, say, a mug.

  • 2
    A cup of iced coffee is probably more attractive than an iced cup of coffee. But I mostly agree with what you're saying. – Jonathan Leffler Feb 12 '15 at 21:07
9

It is perhaps interesting to also consider tea, and the transatlantic differences in language.

UK ngrams
US ngrams

It's clear that in the US, people serve a cup of hot tea far more often than they serve a nice hot cup of tea.

I'd argue that this is probably because, in the US, people have been known to drink cold tea. Not just "cooled down from boiling with a little milk", not "just taken for a splash in Boston harbor", but, would you believe, tea to which they have added ice. They call it "ice tea", the 'd' having been accidentally struck out by a musket ball in the war of 1812. This is not an aberration of a few delinquents, either: it takes up about 85% of modern American tea drinking!

So, long story short, outside of New England, the term "tea" on its own, unqualified, typically means the iced variety.

So, to the American, the requirement is to differentiate from the more usual iced tea, so the term "hot tea" is used for clarity.

To the Briton, a "cup of tea" is more often a cuppa tea, and the nice hot cup of tea is in fact very slightly in the lead in recent years. Superlatives that serve no real purpose other than to emphasize the goodness of the offering, like "nice" and "hot" are often prepended to the compound term "cup of tea", rather than splitting it.

The same applies to coffee (and "ice coffee")

  • 1
    Possibly ice is so popular in America to commemorate the British burning down America's capital in that war you mentioned. Personally, I prefer a nice cup of bubble tea (I can put modifiers everywhere!). – Matt Chambers Feb 12 '15 at 22:37
  • I thought that was the French? Or at least, the Canadians. The "people to the North", anyway. [Edit: And, BUBBLE tea? Burning at the stake is too good for such heresy!] – Dewi Morgan Feb 12 '15 at 22:50
  • At the time of the "Anglo-American War of 1812", the Canadians were by themselves and others basically considered British, and the country the USA declared war on was the British Empire. – clacke Feb 13 '15 at 11:38
8

"A cup of hot coffee"

  • The cup's state is mentioned separately from the coffee's, with preference for a cup more particularly tied to the request (vs. a mug) due to its precedent placement.

"A hot cup of coffee"

  • The heat takes precedence this time, to the vessel and contents. To me, this implies that not only are both the cup and coffee requested hot, but that the vessel is less important in relation to the temperature.
4

Both are correct sentences, but could lead to confusion:

Is the cup hot or the coffee hot?

A cup of hot coffee

In this sentence, the coffee is hot, but the cup might not be.

A hot cup of coffee

In this sentence, grammar would suggest that the cup is hot, but the coffee might not be.

  • Is is good use of the language to ask for "a hot cup of coffee", when what I need is "a cup of hot coffee"? – Kagiso Feb 11 '15 at 11:36
3

A cup of hot coffee could be used to emphasize a contrast to a cup of iced coffee: to select a product type rather than quibble about a temperature variation. Note that an iced cup of coffee sounds odd.

If you were to place an order, hot coffee would be the preferred name for the item that you are ordering. Ordering a hot cup of coffee would be slightly odd — possibly (but unlikely) interpreted as a hint that it should not be served lukewarm. The distinction is weak, though — a server would likely not interpret that as an accusation of improper serving temperature. Nevertheless, using the proper word order avoids such ambiguity.

2

They're both grammatically correct, though a hot cup of coffee does sound like it implies that the cup is hot, rather than the coffee.

2

I'm surprised nobody's talked about what "cup of" really means in this context.

When I read hot cup of coffee I don't think the cup is hot (though, of course, it is) — I think that a cup-sized quantity of coffee is hot. In that sense, "hot cup of coffee" and "cup of hot coffee" mean the same thing.

1

To me, it seems like this: what is being modified and by what? Let's break it down:

coffee: noun - thing (easy enough)

Now: what kind of coffee?

hot coffee: adjective + noun

Now: what kind or how much hot coffee?

cup of hot coffee: adjective phrase + adjective + noun

Alternately, consider: what kind of coffee?

cup of coffee: adjective phrase

What sort of a cup of coffee?

hot cup of coffee: adjective + adjective phrase + noun

There also seems to be a sort of quandary here - I forget the official term for this - but this sort of thing can be seen in other places as well. Consider the well known phrase Old Norse History Professor - what does he teach?

  • That one is easily avoided by switching the phrasing to Old Professor of Norse History, though. – Will Crawford Jan 9 at 14:00

protected by Andrew Leach Feb 11 '15 at 15:20

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