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On several occasions I have heard white people from the deep south part of the United States (Louisiana to Georgia) say that they will be eating ON leftovers, instead of just eating leftovers.

For example, I would normally say: I'm going to eat the leftover spaghetti all week.

However, some people say: "I'm going to eat on the leftover spaghetti all week."

Clearly, you don't eat ON spaghetti, but it may be a regional thing that is acceptable. Can anyone explain this?

NOTE: Also, I recently heard Maggie, a southern character presumably from Georgia on the TV show Walking Dead, say "I'll think on it", which made me think it might be a southern dialect thing, as opposed to just improper English.

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    Sounds like "eating on" means "subsisting on", which is an interesting alteration/widening of eating. – Andrew Leach Sep 20 '17 at 13:54
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    In the cited context, alternative verbs such as dine, subsist, survive, live, exist all require the preposition on linking the foodstuff to the verb. But so far as I know only non-native speakers would do that with eat, which is transitive. – FumbleFingers Sep 20 '17 at 14:06
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    I don't understand the close votes on this question, this is a question about regional dialects vs grammar both of which are within the scope of this forum and clearly listed as such in the Help Center. – Devil07 Sep 20 '17 at 14:59
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    "Clearly you don't eat on spaghetti" ... I suppose you don't chew on spaghetti, either? – GEdgar Sep 20 '17 at 15:20
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    For the record "I'll think on it" is completely normal and unnotable in Pacific Northwest English. – Azor Ahai Sep 20 '17 at 17:26
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As a native speaker of a 'deep south' dialect, I believe I can provide a fairly authoritative answer.

Eat is inherently telic—unmodified it implicates (although it does not entail) complete consumption of its object. Consequently, a futurive construction such as I will eat or I'm going to eat is implicitly perfective.

On is added in my dialect to explicitly cancel those implications: the speaker claims that he will eat portions of the spaghetti at intervals throughout the coming week, without necessarily consuming the whole of it.

(However, "I'm going to eat ...", falls oddly on my ear; it suggests (again, in my dialect) that the speaker is announcing his firm intention of dining on the spaghetti. A more likely construction would be "I'm going to be eating on the leftover spaghetti all week.")

Eating on is not by any means a fixed idiom in my dialect. What we have here is, rather, a regionally widespread use of Verb on Object instead of bare Verb Object to provide an explicitly imperfective sense: for instance, we sand on a board for a while or consider on a topic without coming to any conclusion. This use of on is by no means unknown in Standard English (whatever the hell that is), where one may nibble on the hors-d'oeuvres or work on an assigned task; but the use is more widespread and the construction more productive in the South.

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    Your wording implicitly implies (or implicates) that the phenomenon does indeed occur in your variety. But you also imply/implicate that the phenomenon should be universal in English. As it is not universal, can you clarify how you explanation does or does not work for all varieties of English and for your particular one where the phenomenon occurs? – Mitch Sep 20 '17 at 15:20
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    This is an exemplary answer! – Chris Sunami Sep 20 '17 at 16:42
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    @Mitch A chronic problem here and on ELL is questions that present odd brief utterances divorced from their discourse context: each reader makes their own sense of the utterance by inventing a context, and then finds it very difficult to enter into an entirely different context imagined by the next reader. I read this and immediately had a vision of the speaker staring in dismay at a vast pot of cold spaghetti and seeing himself eating on it (non-southerners might say "eating at it") for a week. – StoneyB Sep 20 '17 at 18:01
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    I can confirm that "eating on" as StonyB explains it, is common in the parts of Atlanta and rural North Carolina I frequent - much like snack on and nibble on - meaning to consume part of something. Those buzzards have been eating on that carcass since the weekend is another typical use. – Davo Sep 20 '17 at 18:14
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    Funny - mid-Atlantic native AmE speaker here, and if I were looking at a huge amount of leftover spaghetti, I would be more likely to say, "I'll be eating off this for weeks!" – Todd Wilcox Sep 22 '17 at 2:00
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I'm from the edge of the U.S. South (Texas), and I've never heard "eat on" used in connection with actual eating, so this must be a Deep South locution, to judge from StoneyB's interesting answer.


'Eat on' as a slang idiom

On the other hand the idiomatic expression "What's eating on you/him/her?" (as a variant of "What's eating you/her/him?") is widespread in Texas and I believe that I've also heard it used in other parts of the United States where I've lived (Washington, D.C., New York City, and San Francisco Bay Area). But it's unclear to me whether it arose independently of the literal dialectal sense of "eating on" or is a unique offshoot of the Southern wording that caught on everywhere.

J.E. Lighter, Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang (1994) has this relevant entry for the verb eat:

eat v. 1. to annoy, bother, or vex.—occ[asionally] constr[ued] with on. [First citation, followed by citations involving "eat on":] 1892 S[tephen] Crane, Maggie 36: "Well," he growled, "what's eatin' yehs?" ... 1918 Gibbons Thought Wouldn't Fight 99: What's eating on you, kid? ... 1937 Steinbeck Mice & Men 59: What's Eatin' on Curley? 1939 O'Brien One Way Ticket 8: What the hell's eatin' on you now, fella? ... 1961 Terry Old Liberty 31: I listened and tried not to let their talk eat on me too bad.

The 1918 instance of "eating on" is from Floyd Gibson, "And They Thought We Wouldn't Fight" (1918) where it appears in the context of a conversation in a military barrack room between the author and an American named Budd English, whom the author identifies as having a "quaint Southwestern wit":

"That's Kid Ferguson, the pug," English whispered to me, and then in louder tones, he enquired, "What's eating on you, kid?"

"Aw. this bunk in the paper," replied Ferguson. Then he glared at me and enquired, "Did you write this stuff?"


Early Google Books matches for 'eat on' used in a literal sense

A slightly earlier instance of "eat on" in its literal sense appears in M.A. Yothers, "Bud Weevils and Other Bud-eating Insects of Washington" (February 1916):

The writer collected many specimens of this weevil on one- and two-year-old apple trees at Brewster, Washington, in April and May, 1911 and 1912. They were also found abundant on the wild sunflower, Balsmorrhiza sagittata, which grows in many parts of the sagebrush region in great abundance. At Brewster, Washington, where so many of these weevils were found the sunflower was very plentiful just outside the young orchards. It is quite certain that Mylacus saccatus feeds at least to a considerable extent on this wild sunflower, for on some of the flower heads the flowers were largely eaten away. In several instances they were observed eating on the flowers. Although many of the flower heads were examined no eggs or larvae of the weevils were found on or in them.

In context, it seems clear that "eating on" is equivalent to "eating at" or simply "eating," since the weevils are not being described as consuming a meal procured elsewhere on the flowers. The Washington in question is Washington state in the U.S. Pacific Northwest, not Washington, D.C., in the Mid-Atlantic Region.

An intriguing very early instance of "eat on" appears in "Habits [of the Locust] at Night," in First Annual Report of the United States Entomological Commission for the Year 1877 Relating to the Rocky Mountain Locust (1878):

Alden, Freeborn County [Minnesota].—Remain on the ground unless disturbed. Eat on what they light on.—{[Stephen] Cross [& Albert Lea, of Freeborn County]

The telegraphic style of this note is a complication here, but "eat on" again seems to mean "eat at" or "eat." Minnesota in in the northern Midwest of the United States.

From "Mrs. Grundy on the Adulteration of Food," in the English periodical Punch, volume 28 (1855), we have this instance:

Your pickles and preserves yon stains bright green for to draw people's eyes on 'em,/ Whereby they verdigris contains, and them as eats on 'em they pisen 'em.

It isn't clear whether "eats on 'em" here is a dialectal form of "eats of them" or whether "eats on" is equivalent to "eats" alone.

And jumping back another couple of centuries, we have this instance from Ben Jonson, The Magnetick Lady; or Humours Reconciled (1632/1641):

Compass. Thou malicious knight,/ Envious sir Moth, that eats on that which feeds thee,/ And frets her goodness that sustains thy being;/ What company of mankind would own thy brotherhood,/ But as thou hast a title to her blood,/ Whom thy ill-nature hath chose out t'insult on,/ And vex thus, for an accident inher house,/ As if it were her crime! good innocent lady.

Here "eats on" appears to be a synonym of "feeds on" as biologists (and others) use that term today.

Overall, Google Books searches turned up very few matches for "eat on" in the literal sense of "eat." The fact that three of the four earliest matches involve the feeding habits of insects (moths, locusts, and weevils) suggests that "eating on" may have some sense of nibbling. But the sample size is vanishingly small.

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    Google Ngram does turn up some examples of "eatin' on", though, including one in a book of Southern Appalachian banjo songs--"Old Molly Hare, what you doin' there, Sittin' on a hillside, eatin' on a bear." (And others.) – Xanne Sep 22 '17 at 0:15
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As a UK native speaking British English we are more likely to use the antonym 'off' rather than 'on'.

Having had a party which we massively over-catered for, we might say 'I see we'll be living off leftovers this week'! Living relates to eating and the off indicates we will be eating a portion of the food each day.

Google Books has a number of references to living 'off' leftovers.

  • Strangely, I think you might say "live off" and "dine on". – Robin Salih Sep 21 '17 at 8:38
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    You seem to be claiming that we'd "eat off spaghetti leftovers all week", and that seems completely wrong to me, as a native British speaker. To eat off something means to use that thing in lieu of a plate. Yes, we could "live off" (or "live on") leftovers but the question is specifically asking about "eat on". – David Richerby Sep 21 '17 at 8:49
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    I can see the similarities between "eating on leftovers" vs "eating off leftovers." – Devil07 Sep 21 '17 at 13:29
  • "indicates we will be eating a portion of the food each day." I think that is indeed what "eating on" means, i.e. eating small amounts little by little. – developerwjk Sep 21 '17 at 21:53
  • @RobinSalih Where as I would say "live on" and "eat off". – Todd Wilcox Sep 22 '17 at 2:01
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Out in California I hear constructs such a "Munching on popcorn."

There is a John Mellencamp song called "Jack and Diane." The first part of the lyrics mentions "suckin' on a chili dog":

"A little ditty 'bout Jack & Diane Two American kids growing up in the heart land Jack he's gonna be a football star Diane debutante in the back seat of Jacky's car Suckin' on chili dog outside the Tastee Free ..."

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    You're right—many verbs related to eating commonly take on or at: munch, gnaw, nibble, and chew, for example. But in much of the United States, eat on is not a common construction to describe actual (not figurative) eating. – Sven Yargs Sep 21 '17 at 18:17
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The owl and the pussycat 'dined upon mince/and slices of quince/which they ate with a runcible spoon' If they didn't finished it off they could I suppose have dined on the leftovers after they washed the runcible spoon. The verb "to eat" doesn't usually take a preposition in standard English.

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