could you please tell me whether the following sentences are both grammatically correct and whether both of them sound natural?

These objects (e.g. flowers) can have many different colors.

These objects (e.g. flowers) can be many different colors.

4 Answers 4


There is a difference between having a color and being a color.

To be a color is to be entirely, or predominantly, of that color (e.g. a blue sky). If more than one color predominates, then an object can be multiple colors (e.g. a red and white striped shirt). In contrast, to have a color is less exclusive; it suggests that other colors may be present, and those other colors may even be more prominent than the one you are talking about (e.g. the flags of Taiwan, Saudia Arabia, and Slovenia all have white on them).

To offer some real-life examples using Wikimedia Commons images, if you asked the average person what color these tulips are, the response will most likely be yellow, or some variety of yellow:

Yellow tulips by Kor!An (Андрей Корзун), from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tulip_cv._100.JPG

The flower below is trickier.

Monsella tulip by Kor!An (Андрей Корзун), from  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tulip_%27Monsella%27_02.JPG

If pressed to name a single color, most people would also say this tulip is yellow, since the overwhelming proportion of the visible parts of the flowers (i.e. the petals) is yellow. From a distance, it will appear entirely yellow. But many will at the same time object that the flower also has red in it— it is yellow with red stripes or is yellow, but has red stripes.

In this third case, many may refuse from the outset to identify the flower as being any one color:

Viola image by russavia, from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Starburst_(2256714105).jpg

They will say it is purple, white, and yellow, or that it is white and purple and has yellow (on one petal). This flower has yellow, but it cannot be said that it is yellow.

In practice, to say flowers can be many colors and can have many colors is nearly equivalent. But one could draw a distinction between the two. To say flowers can be many colors is to say that flowers may reflect a range of predominant colors. In contrast, to say flowers can have many colors is to say that many colors can be found among the flowers, even if they all share the same predominant color.

Thus, if flowers can be yellow, you can expect flowers looking like the first or second examples. If flowers can have yellow, you can expect flowers looking like any of the three examples.

  • Thanks for your answer. Is it also alright to say something like the following sentence? "This bunny is a darker brown." I'm not entirely sure whether the article "a" is ok here.
    – fill
    Feb 27, 2016 at 11:13

Both are correct, but the second one sounds more natural to me. Also, they have slightly different meanings.

When I hear "the flowers can be many different colors" I think of a type of flower that can be red OR blue OR any other color (but a solid color, not mixed). A rose can be red OR white OR pink (but entirely red or entirely white, not at the same time). If that makes sense.

When I hear "the flowers can have many different colors" I think of flowers that are multi-colored. Like a flower that can have red AND blue AND green, all on one flower.

"be" many different colors = red OR blue OR green

"have" many different colors = red AND blue AND green

This is not always the case but it is the difference I think of.


Actually all that has been said does not explain why English prefers to say

  • 1 What colour are his eyes? And not: 2 What colour have his eyes?

I think that the variant 1 was originally

  • Of what colour are his eyes?

In the course of time "of" was dropped as describing the colour of something is a frequent topic. So we actually have a shortened expression.

The drop of "of" is for me the only reason why English says: What colour is her hair? and not: What colour has her hair? as a lot of speakers of other languages would say.

It would be fine if I or others could find something that would back up my theory.

Added: In this question Link we find "Every ball has a different color" and "All balls are of different color.

  • +1 - There is a traditional American folk Song called East/Old Virginia. If you dig around in older field recordings and transcriptions, you'll find the heroine of the song described with feature of a color: Buell Kazee sang Her hair it was of a dark brown curly. Her cheeks they were of a rosy red. Jean Ritchie sings that Her cheeks they were of a brightsome color." Dan Tate sang that her eyes were of a diamond blue. Some of those recordings are collected here: oldweirdamerica.wordpress.com/2011/11/09/…
    – Adam
    Feb 25, 2016 at 20:10

They are both true, both are grammatically correct and they both sound natural.

It's an oddity of English that we refer to things as both having and being colours. Which one you use is simply down to preference.

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