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I came across a sentence recently:

We shall discuss this matter over a cup of tea.

Why is the preposition over used here ? I first thought that it would be with, but then, we discuss things with somebody and not something. Also, it is usually the practice that we have arguments over a certain topic, so discussion over a cup of tea doesn't sound well reasonable.

Thus, I want to know,

  1. What is the meaning (in plain english) of this senetence, and
  2. Why can't we use the preposition with instead (my reason might be wrong).

Thanks a lot!

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"Over" in this context means that you will be talking or taking some similar action during the time when you are eating or drinking something, or (much more rarely) doing some other activity.

If you used "with" in this case it would change the meaning. Consider these sentences.

Bob and Willard fell in love over dinner

means that they fell in love while they were eating their dinner. If you say:

Bob and Willard fell in love with dinner

it means they really, really like their dinner. Using this construction, even where it is less ambiguous, to mean "while eating dinner" is not very idiomatic. You can have wine with dinner; you have a discussion over dinner or during dinner.

You can restate this in other ways, however.

Let's work out the details over a couple of beers

can be restated as:

Let's work out the details while we drink a couple of beers

but this sounds a bit awkward and stilted. My guess is that that's why the shorter "over" idiom came to be--it avoids the ambiguity of "with" but is simpler than constructions like "while we eat" or "to accompany" or suchlike.

As a mnemonic--and a plausible origin--think of two people sitting at a table drinking tea. The tea is in cups on the table; the discussion passes over it, above the table. The discussion is literally happening "over" the tea.

  • I've upvoted this answer, which explains the idiomatic usage quite well, but I do want to emphasize that we are not compelled to explain how "over" means "above" in a literal sense. Most prepositions have plenty of secondary, tertiary, and idiomatic meanings and usages. In addition to over tea, we can say over the years, broadcasting over the radio, ruling over his kingdom, and just over the river, none of which mean "above." In this case, it means "during," a la Definition 15b. – J.R. Apr 22 '14 at 17:04
  • "In this case, it means "during," " - do you mean to say that in just over the river and broadcasting over the radio, over means during. I thought it meant above in the first, and through the means of in the second. Please clarify a bit. Thanks. – Gaurang Tandon Apr 23 '14 at 2:59
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    "Over" has many meanings. In "over dinner," it means "during"; in "over the river," it means "across," in "over the radio," it means "using". – chapka Apr 23 '14 at 13:30
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Suggesting the matter is discussed 'over a cup of tea' would indicate a less formal approach, more casual and less threatening.

Whereas, 'We shall discuss the matter', for an english speaker, might well infer some authority upon the behalf of the speaker over the person being spoken too.

To discuss in the more friendly and social environment of sharing time drinking, would indicate that there is no threat, just a need to discuss something that needs a resolve without resorting to established authority placing a demand on the second party.

Also, it 'could' mean the speaker is asserting his authority over the listener with a firm instruction to resolve a matter, but removes the 'sting' from the instruction by adding 'over a cup of tea' and have no intention to ever have a cup of tea, but will require the listener to complete the task given or else a 'talking to' will ensue for failing the initial instruction. a snobbish elitist way of giving a reminder that something needs to be done.

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