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I've been reading some threads/posts here and after some research, I asked myself why do these differences occur:

"I eat bread and ham"

here the word "and" passes the idea of putting two things together, whereas using "with" would cause the opposite

"I drink coffee with milk"

in this one, the word "with" passes the idea of mixing and putting things together

Does anyone know why things are like that?

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    Interesting question! In general I think you are right - we say fish and chips, meat and veg and I take my coffee with milk/milk in my coffee - but we also say bread and butter even though the butter (or other spread) is applied to the bread, not just eaten together with it. I don't think there is any logical explanation; it's just how these phrases have developed over the years. Feb 18, 2022 at 15:50
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    However, there's gin and tonic, rum and coke & chicken with black bean sauce, so it's not a simple case of drinks using "with" and foods using "and".
    – KillingTime
    Feb 18, 2022 at 16:08
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    Amount or quantity, maybe? Coffee is the main attraction and milk is the sideshow. But bread + ham = sandwich. Feb 18, 2022 at 16:11
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    Pastrami on rye, chicken in gravy, salmon en croute, cheesy chips, buttered toast, and many specific names for special combinations of foods like welsh rarebit (cheese on toast), fish supper (fish and chips). There are lots of ways of describing food combination.
    – Stuart F
    Feb 18, 2022 at 17:04
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    I think some of it has to do with whether you are describing the result or the ingredients. Of course the next question will be when should I describe the ingredients and when the results?
    – Jim
    Feb 18, 2022 at 17:17

2 Answers 2

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I recognize that the summation of the comments is "Sometimes things are like that because things are just like that. Sometimes." Language is created, and we fall into phrasal habits.

But I think there is a distinction that can be made, at least in the case of "coffee with milk." I think we can agree that "coffee and milk" would be odd. Is there any reason besides idiomatic habit?

I would argue that the constructions that use "and" tend to be either a pairing of equal but distinct things or somewhat the opposite: a pairing that becomes phrasally established as a single concept. "Gin and tonic," "peanut butter and jelly," "fish and chips": these pairings are recognized as coherent entities, and outrepresent their component parts. And (depending how you mix your drinks), they are unions of more or less equal parts. "Coffee with milk" is (with further requisite humor about drink mixing) more of a single main item plus a "garnish." And although café con leche (and for that matter au lait) is rather phrasally established, it's still seen as a variation on a theme; it's a "type of coffee" or a treatment of coffee. "Chicken with black bean sauce" continues the trend.

I'm at a loss to come up with a "___ with ___" construction that is either a phrasal pairing or a union of equals. (At least in English—arroz con pollo suggests itself.) The concept holds true outside of food, as well. "Simon and Garfunkel" are a team, but "Paul Simon with the Boston Pops" makes it clear who is the headliner.

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"I eat bread and ham"

Bread and ham are not "typically-mixable" items (see clarification on "mixable" below). Default assumption/context is that you mean bread and ham either separately or separable, unless you provide overriding context.

Exceptions: This expression may be used even if the items fit the "typically-mixable" criteria for the following reasons though:

  • One ingredient is more valuable, important, or purposeful than the others (e.g. gin and tonic - you're drinking it for the gin, not the tonic).

  • Listing the ingredients needs to be part of identifying the food because the base term is vague. "Corn bread and ham stuffing" - stuffing can mean a lot of things, so enumerating some of the ingredients gives you a better idea of what it is.

"I drink coffee with milk"

Coffee and milk are "typically-mixable" items. Therefore a context is created that supports the assumption that you mean coffee with milk mixed in it.

Mixable here means when A and B are mixed, you can't unmix A and B without a lot of effort.

Logically following - you might say "ham with sauce" - you can't really take the sauce off ham without a lot of effort, so it's mixed in the above sense.

So: "Corn Bread and Ham Stuffing with Caramelized Apples and Fennel" - 2 items identified by enumerating 2 ingredients, and those two items not really unmixable (stuffing + apples/fennel) once combined.

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