What are the differences between the terms "How come ... we eat breakfast?" and "Why ... do we eat breakfast?"

The words phrase based in how seems really awkward to me, and I don't understand this convention.

  • In German, you can do something similar: wieso (literally "how so") in place of warum ("why").
    – Kosmonaut
    Nov 24, 2010 at 20:57
  • There's a lot of things English gets from German, that could be the reason.
    – Incognito
    Nov 24, 2010 at 21:01
  • 3
    I believe "How come ...?" is a contraction of "How does it come to be that ...?" or "How comes it [to be] that ...?"
    – Robusto
    Nov 24, 2010 at 21:02
  • 2
    English also has "what for", which can be used instead of "why" in certain places.
    – Kosmonaut
    Nov 24, 2010 at 21:10
  • @Kosmonaut: In German, you could also say weshalb (roughly "on whose part"), weswegen (roughly "because of what"), or even, if you wanted to be funky, wes Grundes (roughly "on what reason's behalf"). (@_@)
    – RegDwigнt
    Nov 24, 2010 at 21:11

7 Answers 7


"How come...we eat breakfast?" is less formal. As Robusto commented, it's a contraction of something like: "How does it come to be that ...?" or "How has it come to pass that...?"

Also, it's not as confrontational. "How come you turned up late?" is softer than "Why did you turn up late?". It is a subtle mechanism that allows us to drop the 'do' verb from the question.

The latter is something your boss might ask. It is a very direct question expecting a direct answer, with the emphasis on "you doing".

The former is something your work colleague might ask. It is softer because it acknowledges that 'it came to be' that you were late. The emphasis is shifted off "you doing".

  • 3
    I agree about formality, but not about confrontation: I would put them the other way round. I suspect this is another UK/N.Am difference: "how come" is generally less common in the UK, so when it is used it tends to be "marked" (as linguists say) i.e. chosen for a reason; and in my ears that reason will be to express truculence or disapproval.
    – Colin Fine
    Nov 25, 2010 at 11:54
  • yes - after sleeping on this I kind of agree that its not so black and white....for me it seems to question the 'state of affairs' as opposed to the actors of those affairs. USA thang - yes it would be unusual to hear a British person ask: 'how come we eat breakfast?'. Whereas not unusual to hear them say "How come the rich get richer and the poor get poorer?". I don't know why that is so.
    – JWEnglish
    Nov 25, 2010 at 14:40
  • I'm in the 'how come can be softer' school. I agree with Colin that it's marked in the UK, but, in the UK and with the right intonation, for a gentle chiding rather than a fairly stark confrontation. Imagine Snape using "How come you're late, Potter?" Apr 17, 2014 at 9:10

There are answers here that are close, but claim that "how come" is a contraction.

Come has a sense, meaning "turn out", "happen", "come about". It's a relatively rare use now, but it was once more common:

Til it com on a fest dai, þat king herod did for to call þe barnage — Cursor Mundi c 1400

Whan it came vpon a daye that Elcana offred. — 1 Samuel 1:4, Coverdale's Translation, 1535.

All things ar cumde for the best. — Ane verie excellent and delectabill treatise intitulit Philotus, 1603

And when that sense was current, we could apply how to it to enquire as to the way by which something "turned out/happened/came about":

How com'st that you haue holpe To make this rescue? — Shakespeare, Coriolanus.

While this sense of come waned, its use in how come popped up as a colloquial survivor and grew from there.

Considering it a contraction of "how did it come that" will provide a fine understanding of the meaning, but is not what it actually is.


It seems that there are in general two broad but distinct types of the question Why. One asks for a cause or purpose and the other asks for an intended outcome or result. The question How come is limited to asking only the former type of Why questions and not the latter.

  • That's an interesting way of looking at it. Can you give an example of 'Why-asking for an outcome'.
    – JWEnglish
    Nov 26, 2010 at 21:44
  • I think "how come" implies it could be a coincidence while "why" implies an intention. Feb 22, 2011 at 11:33

How come? is short for How has this come to be?


I have been thinking on this for a while...

"How come...?" is asking for the history, verbs, facts behind a condition, i.e. "How come all of your coffee cups are so small?" The answer would explain the history of the larger cups breaking, the small-cup sets received as gifts, etc.

"Why...?" is asking more of a present-tense description defining the condition in question. "Why are all of your coffee cups so small?" "Because I have a problem with caffeine", or "I don't know".

Also, Why?/because. How come?/ Not positive, not thought all the way through, but "Why" wants a current condition definition, "How come" wants a history...


"How come" [how did to come to be that] is used more conversationally. It can express an air of surprise, indignation, or unfairness. I wouldn't use it in formal speaking or writing. You don't need the do auxiliary verb usually formed with question words.

  • How come she gets to leave early?
  • How come you ate all the chips?

"What for" is asking for the intended purpose of a request.

  • What do you want to borrow my car for?

    • Because my car is in the shop. (not really acceptable = no purpose stated)
    • For a quick trip to the post office. (acceptable = purpose stated)

"Why" is the general question word that covers all your bases. Sometimes you use the 2 constructions above for clarity of expression.


In my view "How come + that-clause?" derives from "How does/did/has it come?".

1 How come you know so much about computers?

2 Why do you know so much about computers?

It seems there is no difference in meaning between 1 and 2. And yet there is a difference. But how to explain it? That's the question!

I wish I could explain it, but I see I get into trouble. Maybe I could say the question with why is a blunt question, whereas the question with how come indicates we admire that the person spoken to has such great knowledge about computers and that we are interested in hearing more about it, we would like to hear the whole story. I think the question with how come shows that we take a lot of interest in the other person. Perhaps one could say the question with how come has some emotional value whereas the question with why has none.

By the way Germans use the same formula: Wie kommt es, dass ...?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.