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"the food is comfortable"

The person who said it meant "the food made me feel comfortable". My initial instinct was that "this food is comfortable" is incorrect. However, since "this couch is comfortable" is acceptable in everyday usage, then why can't "food" be used in the same way?

I tried to think of other nouns which feel wrong in that context, e.g. "this atom is comfortable", or "this abstraction is comfortable", and they all feel like incorrect sentences to me. So it seems like maybe some nouns can be used in this way, but not others?

For the record, we can say "the cat is comfortable", so this question is about inanimate objects.

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Comfortable, when it describes objects or places, tends to refer to physical comfort (softness, temperature, ergonomics), and this sense may be jarring when applied to food. I will quote most of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary entry for comfortable (adj.):

1a : affording or enjoying contentment and security // a comfortable income

b : affording or enjoying physical comfort // a comfortable chair // was too comfortable to move

2a : free from vexation or doubt // comfortable assumptions // Lamb was comfortable in his ignorance of what he did not choose to know.— James Mason Brown

b : free from stress or tension a comfortable routine // stayed at a comfortable distance from the crowd

Your friend used comfortable in sense 1a: the food affords contentment and security, or a kind of abstract comfort. In comparing it to the couch is comfortable, you insist that the food example should be read through the lens of sense 1b, physical comfort. Does usage follow your intuition?

In a corpus search, a collocation search for "(something) (something) is comfortable" will tend to turn up objects of physical comfort. For the Corpus of Contemporary American English, I've categorized the results with 2 or more entries, excluding names. There are:

Words related to people

  • who
  • everyone
  • everybody
  • patient
  • student
  • teacher
  • child
  • skier
  • artist
  • daughter
  • son

Words related to spaces

  • room

  • interior

  • weather
  • space
  • design
  • itself ("the bridge itself," "the cockpit itself")

Words related to objects

  • ride
  • seat
  • keyboard
  • shoe
  • fabric
  • grip
  • bike
  • shirt

So in non-unique results, people, spaces, and physical objects dominate. Physical comfort seems the predominant usage when applied to objects or spaces, rather than abstract security or comfort.

Does "food is comfortable" appear? Not in that corpus or in the larger News on the Web Corpus. It does appear on the web - about 23 results on Google for "food is comfortable" compared to about 439,000 for "shirt is comfortable." Based on the corpus results and the dictionary, I suggest people will use comfortable far more often to refer to physical than abstract comfort, and food is in the odd situation of being physical but giving abstract comfort. So you can say "the food is comfortable," but it is rare and potentially confusing as people try to decide precisely how you sit on or wear your food.

  • If food was sentient, it might say it was comfortable if presented on a living naked person....aka "naked sushi". – Mari-Lou A Aug 22 at 15:36
  • @Mari-LouA conversely, I’m sure you could describe a food like gnocchi as comfortable if you took lots of it, piled it up into a chair-like shape, and then sat down on it. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Aug 23 at 14:48
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It's not innately ungrammatical, but it doesn't convey the meaning you want to convey. To convey that meaning, I would change "comfortable" to "comforting," i.e.:

"The food is comforting."

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“The food is comfortable” is indeed proper grammar, but I doubt it conveys what you intend since it refers to the food being comfortable more directly, implying that you're perhaps wearing it or living in it.

Compare to “this is comfort food” (food you eat to attain a feeling of familiarity and/or safety) or “I feel comforted when eating this food” (a similar meaning) or “I am comfortable eating this food” (you do not feel regret or social awkwardness eating it, so it's not a taboo food, you're not worried about making a mess, etc).

Saying “the cat is comfortable” is also valid. It implies the cat is relaxed (perhaps it has found a comfortable place to sit) or else you're comfortable snuggling against the cat.

  • "The cat is comfortable", means (for me) that the cat itself has found a comfortable spot or position and is visibly content. – Mari-Lou A Aug 23 at 7:10
  • Good point, @Mari-LouA. I was thinking of the cat as an inanimate object given the question, but the cat can experience its own comfort. I've amended my answer accordingly. – Adam Katz Aug 23 at 14:23
  • Your name is Katz, of course you think of cats. But the cat is comfortable is utterly meaningless without a refered comfort. Is that a passive or active construction, in your mind? The layers of implied meaning are sheer impenetrable. The cat is well, so much I've got. You might feel obliged to comfort the cat, "the cat is wanting, I better had snuggle it", or you are desiring to suffocate it with your love and note that it cannot resist. You might be saying both, choosing a referent (0) that does not desolve the duality, a superposition, until she unmisunderstandably scratches you, clearly. – vectory Aug 23 at 15:14
  • No @vectory, I just read the question. That’s an interesting “vector” of thinking you have there 😃 – Adam Katz Aug 23 at 21:11

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