I'm reading an English vocabulary book, in the book there are the following sentences:

  • you can have breakfast.
  • you can have lunch.
  • you can have dinner.
  • you can have a meal.

Why do use article (a) with meal and don't use it with other words?

Should/shouldn't using it with: snack, supper, brunch, sandwich, coffee, drink, ice cream ...


You certainly can use an article with the other words. Here's a breakfast of tortillas, here's a filling lunch, here's I once hosted a dinner. The use of the article here is more or less the same as it is anywhere else: it indicates a specific example of something as opposed to the general concept or phenomenon.

A lot of food terms are non-count nouns or can be used in a non-count sense, for example coffee:

It's a matter of learning which words are used in a mass noun sense and which aren't. For example, breakfast, lunch, dinner, supper, brunch, coffee, and ice cream are usually mass nouns because they refer to general phenomena or materials, but it's also perfectly acceptable to refer to (for example) a brunch if you're referring to a specific one.

Sandwich is not a general phenomenon or material, but a discrete object, so it's always "I had a sandwich", never "I had sandwich." Likewise, meal is not a phenomenon or a material, but a specific thing, so it's always a meal (when it means "a specific instance of having food"...there's also a definition of meal that means "ground-up seeds", and that one is a mass noun.)

Drink is a little bit of an odd case, because it's normally a count noun if it refers to "specific things to drink" (let's have a drink or let's have drinks) but a mass noun if you mean "things to drink in general" or "alcohol" ("attitudes relating to food and drink").

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    Good answer! I’d say that ice cream is a peculiar case, too. I’d normally say: You can have ice cream, but I might use an ice cream if the ice cream truck was passing by, I was referring to something like one of these. – J.R. Feb 25 '17 at 12:16
  • @J.R. - Good point about ice cream. I remember we had a question here before once about "a fried rice" too, and I sometimes wonder if English is moving in the direction of making all nouns countable with the sense of "an order of X" or if it was always that way. – stangdon Feb 25 '17 at 12:32
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    No reason to suppose that English is moving in the direction of making all nouns countable. This use of the article has been happening for a long time; compare Chaucer Which of yow..that telleth in this caas Tales of best sentence and moost solaas Shal haue a soper at oure aller cost. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Feb 25 '17 at 13:02

We use or don't use the article depending on the meaning of the word.

When the reference is to the meal that normally occurs at a particular time of day, there is no article:

We eat breakfast in the morning.

We eat lunch around mid-day.

We eat dinner in the evening.

The article is used when we refer to a particular instance of such a meal, or to a particular kind of such a meal, such as one with a particular main course, or a particular type of preparation

...a breakfast of bacon and eggs

She only had time for a quick breakfast—a cup of coffee and a piece of toast

or one that celebrates a particular occasion

a dinner in his honor

Roast lamb makes an excellent Easter dinner

Any sort of particularization licenses the use of the article.

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