I heard that a food critic (who is British male) made a comment on a dish like this:

It looks very pretty, but it doesn't eat very well.

The expression amazed me as I never knew food can be a subject of verb eat. I couldn't find such a usage in any dictionaries. Is it something poetic rather than correct English?

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    Perhaps somewhat similar to "This car drives well", "This steak tastes good". – F.E. Nov 9 '14 at 23:47
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    Yes, food critics do talk that way--it is common in their register. – F.E. Nov 10 '14 at 0:02
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    Aha. Thanks @F.E. and all those who posted answers. BTW, it's Charles Campion who said this. – naoski Nov 10 '14 at 0:10
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    As a native English speaker, this sounds weird to me, although I can figure out what it means. It sounds like the writer is trying to sound fancy. – Neil Kirk Nov 10 '14 at 11:07
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    This is certainly grammatically correct though the meaning of a literal reading would be rather different than what was intended. You rather have to give some poetic license to the writer/speaker if you want to ascertain the intended meaning. Either way I would consider this a poor sentence, perhaps with some intent to sound overly posh. I would not however recommend writing or speaking in this way in any normal situation unless you were trying to create some particular effect. – Vality Nov 10 '14 at 14:20
up vote 17 down vote accepted

English is cool, in that words can often be "bent" to suit our purposes.

Context is everything. Can you use food as a subject of the word eat? Sure you can; you just saw it done. But I'm not surprised you heard this obscure usage being uttered by a food critic. It's their job to eat, taste, and comment, and they will form their sentences accordingly.

I found a similar usage in the comments of a wine critic:

On the second night the wine seemed to offer up even more dark fruit, suggesting that a year or so in bottle may deliver even more. This is not to say that the wine doesn't drink well now – compared to a few of the 2007 Cotes du Rhones I have had, this wine does not show too much heat or acidity at this stage.

I agree with Ryan's answer above; I, too, would not recommend using this wording too often. After, say, visiting a McDonald's, you probably don't want to say:

The French fries were edible, but the Big Mac didn't eat very well.

no matter how mediocre you found the food – unless you want to sound like a food critic for some reason.

The sentence isn't grammatically flawed, but it's not how most people would say it.

  • I'd prefer writing The dessert tastes well to avoid ambiguity. I also think that's a common expression as compared to the one in question. – Maulik V Nov 10 '14 at 4:55
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    @Maulik - No. The dessert tastes good. Not well. Good here is a quality of the dessert, revealed by tasting, so you need an adjective. It's different from the dessert eats well, in which you are qualifying the process of eating, not the dessert itself. – Dawood ibn Kareem Nov 10 '14 at 9:17
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    @MaulikV - I would see slight ambiguity as the point. A food critic is probably paying attention to texture as well as taste, and saying the dessert "doesn't eat very well" can encompass both very concisely. – Dylan Cristy Nov 10 '14 at 19:14
  • @Dylan - I think you hit the nail on the head. Foodies must "appreciate the gestalt" and not just the taste. – Hao Ye Nov 11 '14 at 2:45
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    "Well" as an adjective means "not sick", for people and animals. It doesn't apply to dessert. You'd never say that a dessert wasn't sick. @MaulikV – Dawood ibn Kareem Nov 11 '14 at 3:22

Some verbs are used with 'patient focus'. In the Grammar of Discourse Longacre gives examples such as The article reads smoothly and My new car drives nicely.

It doesn't eat very well appears to be this type of construction, but I have never heard EAT used in this way.

  • Exactly, I just wrote in my comment. tastes well... sounds better. +1 – Maulik V Nov 10 '14 at 4:56
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    It's not common usage: I'd describe it as food-critic jargon – David Richerby Nov 10 '14 at 18:49

Strictly speaking, this is a structure known in linguistics as "middle voice" (although you don't often see that term used when talking about English grammar). In many languages it's explicitly marked, but in English it usually takes the form of a verb that looks like it's active voice but has passive meaning.

As other people have already said, "the dessert eats well" is grammatical, although for many people sounds a little bit forced. There are, however, plenty of other examples of the middle voice in English where it's alive and well. A simple example:

Active voice: "The ball broke the window" (the ball is subject and is causing the action of breaking)

Passive voice: "The window was broken by the ball"

Middle voice: "The window broke" (the window is subject, but underwent the action of breaking)

Or

Active voice: "The sun melted the ice" (the sun is subject and causing the action of melting)

Passive voice: "The ice was melted by the sun"

Middle voice: "The ice melted" (the ice is subject, but underwent the action of melting)

In each case, the middle voice form is derived from a transitive active voice verb, but with the object of the transitive form being used as the subject of the intransitive middle voice form.

  • Do you think that the concept of middle voice is relevant to modern English? – tunny Nov 10 '14 at 21:13
  • Can all transitive verbs be used in middle voice structure in theory? – naoski Nov 10 '14 at 22:51

Saying a phrase such as "eats well" is a fairly poetic usage. It is more stylistic of British English than American English. From my American point of view, it sounds a bit awkward. It is a matter of opinion if such a sentence is correct, but in general, I would avoid using the phrase in this way.

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    I don't think it's so much poetic as jargon. – David Richerby Nov 10 '14 at 18:53

On those lines, it irks me to hear someone say "Oh, she takes a good photo!" when what they mean is "She looks good in a photo!"

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    This isn't an answer to the question. Once you have enough reputation, you'll be able to comment, but answers should be answers and not commentary. – ColleenV Nov 10 '14 at 22:36
  • Why does this "irk" you, john? You don't like seeing language evolve? (Incidentally, this could be a comment, as @Coleen suggests – or it could be the start of an interesting question.) – J.R. Nov 11 '14 at 8:47
  • @J.R. Language can evolve and by not embracing stupid usage it can get better rather than worse. :) – JamesRyan Nov 11 '14 at 12:09
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    @JamesRyan: "better" and "worse" by whose standards? – jimsug Dec 6 '14 at 20:44

It is no more strange than to say the food "looks" very pretty. It has no eyes with which to see, or certainly none that remain operational at this point, I hope! I look at the food and behold it to be pretty, so we says it "Looks pretty". "Eats well" is quite parallel, in this sentence.

  • Not all verbs can be used idiomatically / equally idiomatically in the middle voice. The 'eat' usage is more modern than the 'look' one, and more care has to be taken with particular examples. – Edwin Ashworth Nov 16 '16 at 22:49

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