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Why is it dog eat dog?

It should be: Dog 'eats' dog

or

Dogs 'eat' dogs.

Why does it sound ungrammatical?

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  • It's like a saying, comparable to 'Good mind; good find', where grammar rules can be compromised. – Ram Pillai Apr 29 '20 at 14:57
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    Could have sworn that someone already asked this exact question, but I can’t find it. In any case, this question might answer this: english.stackexchange.com/q/24486/191178 – Laurel Apr 29 '20 at 15:31
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    @Rattler If you mean you don't hold with the policy of keeping the site from bloat, you'd better take that up on Meta. It's always been pointed out that the principle aim of ELU (and as far as I'm aware, all SE sites) is to build up a reliable, comprehensive and easily searchable database. Not reinvent the wheelbarrow innumerable times, answering every reincarnation of a question. – Edwin Ashworth Apr 29 '20 at 19:03
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    @KenShirriff: because dogs don't eat dogs—*except when driven to desperation*. The expression is saying that the world is like the almost unimaginably horrible circumstances that would drive a dog to eat a dog. – Nick Matteo Apr 30 '20 at 22:26
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    @NickMatteo Exactly correct. When you say "It's a dog-eat-dog world" you are saying "It's a harsh, brutal world where everyone must look out for themselves. Even dogs will eat other dogs, that's how bad it is." – barbecue May 1 '20 at 0:26
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Dog eat dog is not a sentence; it's an adjective (and it's usually hyphenated).

You can modify a noun with it:

It's a dog-eat-dog world.

You can also use it as a predicate adjective:

The music business is dog-eat-dog.

Does that still sound ungrammatical to you?

 

If you are still wondering about agreement within this idiomatic multi-word adjective, perhaps this entry from the OED -- will soothe your mind:

dog, n.1 PHRASES P1. Proverbs and proverbial sayings.
c. [after Latin canis caninam non est ( Varro De Lingua Latina vii. 32)] dog does not eat dog and variants: people of the same calling, origin, etc., do not deliberately harm one another; conversely (let) dog eat dog (cf. dog-eat-dog n. and adj. at Compounds 3a).

There the third-person imperative let accounts for the bare infinitive eat. Here are a couple of examples offered at this entry:

1835 W. G. SIMMS Partisan I. v. 59: He cannot escape Travis..who knows the swamp as well as himself. They're both from Goose Creek, and so let dog eat dog.

917 G. L. MORRILL Devil in Mexico 328: Do nothing, let dog eat dog—this is the policy of non-interference.

Here's another example. An elliptical will accounts for the bare infinitive eat here:

1789 Times 19 June 3/1: As it is an established fact, that sharper will not rob sharper, nor dog eat dog.

Definition and examples source: Oxford English Dictionary (login required)

 

Did that bare infinitive eat inform the adjectival version? I don't know for sure, but if you still have doubts, then the "It's an idiom!" excuse will have to do.

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    But why dog-eat-dog and not dogs-eat-dogs? 'According to the Oxford English Dictionary ... man-bites-dog is an adjective of U.S. origin' [Everything2 thread] This shows that saying it is an adjective explains little about the reason for the internal form. – Edwin Ashworth Apr 29 '20 at 15:55
  • dog-eat-dog pre-existed the American newspaper headline origin of man-bites-dog. But that is really irrelevant here. – Lambie Apr 29 '20 at 16:19
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    @EdwinAshworth: I answered this based on the OP's apparent attempt to make a sentence (note the use of cap and period) out of a multi-word adjective (and an idiomatic one at that). But I have updated my answer to address the possible etymology for internal form of the idiom. – Tinfoil Hat Apr 29 '20 at 19:35
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    So the answer is "because it is originally 'let dog eat dog'", right? – justhalf Apr 30 '20 at 6:56
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    It now answers the question, if not definitively, very eruditely and with welcome modality; and I've adjusted my voting. – Edwin Ashworth Apr 30 '20 at 11:53

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