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My husband's family uses the phrase "eating on" as in "we have been eating on these leftovers for several days." This isn't a phrase my family uses, and honestly, I find it evokes a repellant mental image for me. Out of curiosity, I asked several friends around the country (United States) if they are familiar with this phrase. So far, my mother in law and friend's mother in law from the St. Louis area both use it, as does my father in law from Tennessee. I am from central Illinois and cannot recall my family using the phrase. So I believe it may be Southern English. However, I can't recall seeing this used in print or literature by any authors with whose work I am familiar (William Faulkner, Fannie Flagg, Flannery O'connor). Is anyone familiar with the phrase "eating on" who can tell me it's origins or regional usage? Thanks!

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  • It implies scarcity or limitation of food, as in "we were living on pot noodles". Mar 13, 2021 at 15:10
  • Are your husband's family native Anglophones? It looks to me like a non-native speaker's non-idiomatic version of living on / off or subsisting on / getting by on / surviving on... - but if they are in fact native speakers, it's just an uncommon dialectal usage that probably arose in some isolated community where there were lots on non-native speakers (so they didn't pick up the "mainstream" usage). Mar 13, 2021 at 15:20
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    In the UK we used to say 'dining on' more than we do now, e.g. I roasted a 5 kg joint of beef and dined on it for three days. Mar 13, 2021 at 15:23
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    Survive on, live on, dine on, feast on, subsist on, chow down on, etc etc. Mar 13, 2021 at 16:25
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    @MichaelHarvey: That's at least 6 good reasons why someone in an isolated linguistic community might "extrapolate" the usage eat on, and there's apparently no evidence at all that the "eat" version ever had any significant currency in any broader area, so I think this question is going nowhere. Mar 13, 2021 at 16:30

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I found this answer on a related post, which seems accurate and makes sense to me:

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.

Originally posted by StonyB

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  • A good find that sets out the reasons for, and consistency of, a usage. Not only does it deal with eat on but it sheds interesting light on dine on.
    – Anton
    Mar 14, 2021 at 22:53

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