I'm using an application to improve my English. The app had the word 'fabric' and one of its meanings was:

The walls, floor, and the roof of a building.

The example used to explain the meaning was:

Decay and neglect are slowly eating away at the building's fabric

What I couldn't understand was why did they use the word at in the sentence. Shouldn't the sentence be Decay and neglect are slowly eating away the building's fabric?

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    Eat in the sense of erode, wear away can be used in various phrases such as eat away, eat up, eat at. mnemonicdictionary.com/word/eat%20at – Kate Bunting Mar 27 '19 at 8:50
  • Your comment doesn't give any viable explanation. What's wrong with "eating away the building's fabric"? – Kartik Chauhan Mar 27 '19 at 9:07
  • It isn't wrong. However, eat when used in this sense is more commonly followed by at. – Kate Bunting Mar 27 '19 at 9:16

There's nothing wrong with just eating away the building's fabric.

In fact, all of these are acceptable variations:

Decay and neglect are slowly eating away at the building's fabric.
Decay and neglect are slowly eating away the building's fabric.
Decay and neglect are slowly eating at the building's fabric.
Decay and neglect are slowly eating the building's fabric.

The use of the preposition, with our without away, is simply a method of adding a kind of metaphorical description to the action.

For instance, when I think of eating away at, I have a brief mental image of a mouse—or even of something like the titular character from the Pac-Man video game. It also, perhaps with the associated visual, makes me think of nibbling rather than eating in a generic sense.

I suspect I have this visual because the use of at implies something or someone being somewhere. So, not only is there something that is being eaten, but it more strongly enforces the (visual) idea that there is something else present doing the eating.

Similarly, the use of away implies a more long-term effect, one that's taking some time, rather than something that's just quickly swallowed. Of course, the use of slowly in the example sentence also conveys that meaning, but away reinforces it.

Grammatically, there's nothing wrong with any of these sentences. It's just a matter of style, personal preference, habitual language use, and, perhaps, implied imagery, that's determining the verbiage used.

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  • I agree with this answer - I'd add another the difference that "at" makes is how much of the building's fabric is being eaten. "Eating the building's fabric" implies sooner or later all the building will be gone. "Eating at the building's fabric" means the building is big and will never fully disappear due to the decay. – Binney Mar 27 '19 at 17:04
  • @Binney I see where you're going with that, but my interpretation would be that something eventually will be fully eaten unless the action stops. That it's slow (in this sentence anyway) means that you still have time to repair the damage—there's no urgency; however, you can't ignore it altogether. If it weren't something to worry about, I might instead say something like ineffectively gnawing at. – Jason Bassford Mar 27 '19 at 17:11

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