Friday, January 20, 2006

Comment on Having Your Cake and Eating It Too

Benjamin Zimmer noted that Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, preferred "can't eat your cake and have it too" to "can't have your cake and eat it too," and wrote:
But does "you can't have your cake and eat it" really lack the inherent logicality of "you can't eat your cake and have it"? Only if you consider the ordering of the two conjoined verb phrases to imply sequentiality: you can't eat your cake and then (still) have it, but you can have your cake and then eat it. On the other hand, if the and conjoining the VPs implies simultaneity of action rather than sequentiality, then neither version is more "logical" than the other: cake-eating and cake-having are mutually exclusive activities, regardless of the syntactic ordering.
But simultaneous cake-having and cake-eating are NOT mutually exclusive. On the contrary, generally I cannot eat something at any time when I do not have it. But I eat things when I have them all the time. Only when the object is entirely consumed do I no longer have it (and at that time the eating is also terminated). "Can't have your cake and eat it too" is logically indefensible.

To tell the truth, if not for its privileged status as a familiar phrase, "can't eat your cake and have it too" wouldn't sound very natural to me either.

If "have" were replaced with "keep," then I would agree that cake-eating and cake-keeping are mutually exclusive (someone in the process of eating something is not keeping it) AND I would agree that either order of the verb phrases would be equally logical AND it would sound better to my ear than "have and eat," for what that's worth.


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