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Let's have breakfast.

In this sentence, how would a native speaker comprehend the meaning of "breakfast"? Will he think of it as an activity, or as a collection of food items?

The question is inspired by this comment by GoDucks:

I am confused as to the designation of breakfast as an abstract noun. I mean can't we see, taste, touch, smell, hear breakfast? (The same for coffee, which I don't think is abstract.)

If breakfast here is closer to "activity", would there be a difference in comprehension between have breakfast and

Let's eat breakfast.

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GoDucks should meditate upon the difference between the nouns "dinner" and "onion". – TRomano Feb 2 at 12:48
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A meal not eaten is not a meal. -- Confucius – TRomano Feb 2 at 12:50
up vote 12 down vote accepted

Breakfast is the meal one eats in the morning (before noon), usually after waking up, and may consist of different foods depending on culture. Some eateries will serve an all day breakfast, and this first meal of the day when taken late might be referred to as brunch (breakfast and lunch).

Breakfast comes from the phrase to break (one's) fast.

American breakfasts will typically involve any or all of coffee, juice(s), eggs, cereal, bacon, pancakes, sausages, toast possibly with butter and jelly, waffles, maple syrup, hash browns, home fries, doughnuts, muffins, fruit, or yogurt. Southern tastes may include servings of hominy grits with butter or gravy, buttermilk biscuits, anything with pecans and a purpose made breakfast casserole, y'all hurry back! For undergraduates at university cold pizza is not uncommon.

A full English breakfast or fry-up classically consists of eggs, sausage, bacon rashers, potato triangle, fried mushrooms, baked beans, fried tomatoes. Inclusion of black pudding, white pudding, or haggis would make it Scottish.

Hungry yet?

Let's have breakfast
We're eating breakfast
Let's breakfast together
Let's do breakfast (when it was fashionable to say such a thing)

all refer to the meal and activity.

I would disagree that breakfast can not be seen or smelled. In the morning, if one smells eggs cooking or bacon frying or coffee being made, most people will think

It's breakfast time!
Breakfast is being cooked
Breakfast is being served

Breakfast is both the name of the activity and a collection of items

For breakfast we had eggs and bacon
We breakfasted on eggs and bacon
We had the usual breakfast

There is no difference in meaning between

Let's have breakfast
Let's eat breakfast

When you are having breakfast, you will be eating your breakfast.

Under duress, one might emphasise the eating over the having

I have not eaten for days

I need to eat breakfast before I die of starvation!
I would like to have some breakfast before I die of starvation!

the latter is more genteel and not quite the same in urgency

For those interested, scrambled eggs on the International Space Station here
(hopefully not blocked outside UK)

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As for having breakfast vs eating breakfast, I agree there's no difference in meaning, but there are times I think I'm more prone to use one over the other. I think I'd say, "Let's have breakfast at Pete's Diner," but, "I'm starving; let's eat breakfast!" The words could be interchanged and it would mean the same, but, instinctively, I don't think I'd say those the other way around very often. – J.R. Feb 2 at 11:36
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Haggis, for breakfast? Isn't that hardcore even for Scotts? – DevSolar Feb 2 at 13:25
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You may also see "Let's do breakfast" in a business context, where the activity is a fairly informal meeting in a restaurant to discuss business, and the food is of secondary importance. – Brian Drummond Feb 2 at 13:30
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This answer makes me hungry. And you didn't mention waffles for an American breakfast. – Jay Feb 2 at 14:55
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And you clearly haven't spent much time in the Deep South of the US. Breakfast without grits? Heresy! – WhatRoughBeast Feb 2 at 18:34

"In this sentence, how would a native speaker comprehend the meaning of "breakfast"? Will he think of it as an activity, or as a collection of food items?"

How an individual thinks of the word depends of course on the individual. I think of it as both. There is the act of getting together and sitting down and eating, and there is the food. The sentence "let's have breakfast" implies both and there is no need to limit my thinking to only one or the other.

As for usage of the word, you'll be safer if you treat it like it means the food because you will avoid usages that sound strange to modern ears such as, "When we had breakfasted we went to the store." It will sound more natural to say, "When we had had breakfast we went to the store."

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It will sound more natural to say After we had breakfast we went to the store. – GoDucks Feb 3 at 5:34
    
@GoDucks I have corrected the sentence. Your sentence is correct as well but I used a wording that is more natural to me. Thank you for pointing out the problem. – Readin Feb 4 at 5:52

The word "breakfast" is normally understood to mean the collection of food. "Let's eat breakfast." We eat the food.

There is an archaic usage of breakfast as a verb. "We breakfasted together the next day." But almost no one says this any more. You may find it in older books. As @Peter mentions, "breakfast" comes from "break" plus "fast". "Break" means to stop doing something, as in, "let's take a break". "Fast" is to not eat, as in, "The monk fasted and prayed." So to "break fast" is to stop refraining from eating. Most people have a fairly long gap between their last meal of the day and their first meal of the next day, so they are breaking their overnight fast when they eat breakfast. Read books from several hundred years ago and you may find statements like, "We broke our fast when we reached the inn". Today we'd say, "We had breakfast when we reached the inn."

So I think the idea of breakfast as an "activity" is pretty obsolete. Mostly we're talking about the food. People do sometimes say, "Let's do breakfast", which I guess could be taken as a reference to an activity.

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Thank you! If it's all about food now, could we say that 'breakfast' is not an abstract noun but a concrete noun, I wonder. – CowperKettle Feb 2 at 15:12
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@copperkettle, no, because it's a meal, which is an abstract noun. – JNF Feb 2 at 17:23
    
@JNF but a meal can mean both the occasion (activity) and "the food and drink consumed at or provided for such an occasion" (OED). – GoDucks Feb 2 at 20:29
    
@jnf How is a meal "abstract"? You can see it, feel it, touch it -- it fits almost every condition to be concrete. Even if you think of it as the act of eating, you can see people eat, sometimes hear them eat, etc. In any case, even if you want to quibble over the definition, what difference does it make? There are many words that one could debate whether they are abstract or concrete. – Jay Feb 3 at 1:45
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@CopperKettle Does an activity count as a concrete noun? You can see it happening, unlike something that we can probably all agree is abstract like loyalty. Maybe I'm just ancient, but yes, meals are still sometimes activities to me. There's a difference between eating breakfast as I typically do each morning and having breakfast with family and friends on the weekend where I might not eat much at all, but I still say "I went to breakfast". Is it a difference between an abstract and concrete noun though? I don't think so. Is tennis abstract in "Let's play tennis"? – ColleenV Feb 3 at 18:36

Breakfast as a noun is a meal.

Breakfast as a verb is an action.

Have/eat/consume/take/do breakfast is the activity of having/eating/consuming/taking/doing breakfast.

Nonetheless, the OED gives some definitons for meal that seem relevant:

A customary or social occasion of taking food, esp. at a more or less fixed time of day, as breakfast, dinner, etc

Thus, we have meal as an occasion, which seems to me to mean an activity (in the sense that the OP asks about) and this seems transferable to breakfast:

Is grandma coming over for breakfast?

seems to me to refer to the occasion or activity of consuming breakfast.

And, again, the OED:

Any occasion of taking food; the food and drink consumed at or provided for such an occasion.

This latter use of meal seems transferable to breakfast (meal) and to indicate the food and drink consumed at breakfast.

A: Breakfast is on the stove.
B: Yeah, I know, I can smell it cooking.

If I can smell breakfast then can it be an abstract noun? By the common definition of abstract noun (something the five senses cannot grasp) then it seems not. Although music is also called an abstract noun, yet we can certainly say Can you hear the music?, so this also seems an instance of the abstract.

So my answer to your question is that it can be both, depending on the speaker's intent and the context.


As for doing breakfast, this refers to the activity of gathering for the breakfast occasion and consuming the food and drink at the occasion

This is because a common meaning of do is, broadly

OED, 6

With noun of action as object, forming a phrase equivalent in meaning to a related verb of action.

For example:

938 Amer. Home Oct. 81/2 Paint scenery, do publicity, do telephoning, raise money.

more specifically

OED, 28c

orig. U.S. To meet for (a specified meal, etc.), esp. with a view to conducting business.

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Music is not an abstract noun. You can hear it, even write it. The reason music is not a common (concrete) noun and uncountable is you don't need to count them. How would you count music? By number of notes? You can count the number of notes in one piece of music, but you can't count music. That's why it is a mass noun. It is not an abstract noun such as nonsense, modesty or kindness, The same rule applies to breakfast. – Rathony Feb 10 at 5:12

It seems unlikely that native speakers always comprehend "have breakfast" in the same way. Likely, many native speakers would be content if a speaker said "Let's have breakfast at dawn" even if the speaker intended to eat a hot dog (not normally a breakfast food), because the activity involved would be breakfast. On the other hand if in the evening a speaker said, "Let's have breakfast now" a native speaker likely would not think of breakfast as an activity; As an activity it is sometimes hard to distinguish breakfast from various other eating except by the time at which it takes place. So, the native speaker would likely think you were talking about the content of the meal.

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Grammatically either would make sense. But I would say in this sentence it is an activity as it would be strange to use another collection and say "let's have pancakes." out of context, rather than "let's have pancakes for breakfast".

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Although as a student I am very familiar with people answering "what shall we have for dinner?" with "let's have breakfast". – PStag Feb 2 at 19:08

Almost all food-related nouns (including drinks) are uncountable. The uncountability of those nouns comes from the fact that they are material and some grammar books call it a material noun. There are millions of materials in the world, but strangely enough, English doesn't feel the need to count them because (more often than not) it is impossible and sometimes meaningless to count them. In addition, there are words to help you when you count them, e.g., piece (for many uncountable nouns), loaf or slice (bread), cup (coffee and tea), glass (beer and water), etc.

For example, you can have two eggs (countable) and bacon (uncountable) for breakfast. You can count the eggs, but you have to use piece or slice to count bacon. The reason is bacon on your breakfast plate was sliced off one block of meat (which is called bacon). How many pieces can you slice out of , let's say, 500 grams of meat? You could slice 100 pieces, but I could 200 pieces because I need to eat it for a longer period of time. Then, is there any difference between 100 pieces of bacon and 200 pieces of bacon in terms of their weight? Not a single gram of difference. That's the basic characteristic of a mass noun. You can cut/divide it into pieces, but the pieces you see have the same quality (appearance, smell, taste, etc.) as the original one.

You have a cup of coffee. You want to share it with your friend. You pour a half of your coffee to his/her cup. Is there any difference in coffee between the coffee you had originally and two cups of coffee you two are drinking now? There is no difference in terms of smell and taste. Only difference is quantity which is uncountable.

The same rule applies to breakfast. When food items for breakfast are combined, you can divide it by half and share it with your friend. Then, are they called half-breakfast? No, the two plates still have breakfast with the same smell and taste.

When you think about a mass noun, it is very important to have this concept. Of course, someone can argue "You can count the number of fishes on your plate, how come fish is a mass noun?". Well, my answer would be "Fish is an extraordinary case". There is countless number of fish in the sea, but your fish for breakfast is countable. However, if you cut one fish in the middle, what do you see? It is still fish. (Fish has countable and uncountable usage)

I don't agree with calling breakfast as an activity. There is no reason to classify it as one. It is just one of your concepts that's conjured up when you think about having breakfast. In this case, it is closer to an abstract noun. But, the important question is "Why would you call something you can eat, touch, smell and even throw away an abstract noun?" There is no reason.

When you say, "Are you free for a movie, Star Wars, tonight?", the noun movie is a common and countable noun. However, you are talking about an activity of watching the movie. Then, does a noun movie become an abstract noun? Not necessarily so.

Note: This answer can never cover the difference 100% among various (mainly five) types of English nouns. However, there seems to be a concrete rule governing countability and uncountability of nouns.

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