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In my French class, I learned that one cannot say such things as, "Elle mange le petit-dejeuner," for it would translate as, "She is eating [the idea of] breakfast." Instead, one must say phrases that translate as, "She is having breakfast" or, "She is getting breakfast." Where did this come from? Is there a particular reason for this?

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    « Elle mange son petit déjeuner » would be correct. « Elle mange le petit déjeuner » sounds odd but I can't tell how you could understand it as something else than "she's having breakfast" o_O – Stéphane Aug 23 '16 at 5:40
  • Welcome to French Language user11232. It's OK if you ask your question in English, but can you give in French the sentences you want to deal with. All we have is Elle mange le petit-déjeuner, your other English sentences do not necessarily translate what French sentences you are thinking about. I expect you are thinking of Elle prend le petit déjeuner, but "She is having breakfast" and "She is getting breakfast" are not necessarily synonyms. Just as there are cases when Elle mange le petit-déjeuner can be used, so we need more context. – Laure SO - Écoute-nous Aug 23 '16 at 5:42
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    And if you are thinking of "have breakfast" as prendre le petit-déjeuner keep in mind that take breakfast (to mean you are actually eating your breakfast and not carrying it to some place) is used in some parts of the English speaking world. You can edit your question by clicking on "edit". And maybe you can change the title of your question to make it more suggestive. "Eating in France" is really too broad (eating manners? eating habits?), it seems you are asking about how to say "have a meal" in French - or did you really mean France as compared to other French speaking countries? – Laure SO - Écoute-nous Aug 23 '16 at 5:55
  • @Stéphane "Son petit déjeuner" désigne la nourriture qu'elle mange (sa nourriture) pour le petit déjeuner, alors que "le petit déjeuner" désignerait la nourriture de tout le monde. – Teleporting Goat Jun 6 '17 at 8:44
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"Le" is definite article, so when your are saying "Elle mange LE petit-déjeuner", you are making reference to some precise breakfast, known by both you and your interlocutor. That's why without any context, "Le petit-déjeuner" refers to the idea of breakfast, in general, and this is what your teacher meant. I think the corresponding sentence in English is "She's having the breakfast", that is odd too (and might be incorrect).

What we want, to traduce "She's having breakfast", is to use the indefinite article (equivalent to english "a", undertoned in this english sentence) : "Elle mange UN petit-déjeuner"

"Elle mange SON petit-déjeuner", also used to translate "She's having breakfast", is more usual than "Elle mange UN petit-déjeuner", without different meaning.

To conclude, "Le petit-déjeuner" could also refer to the food of the breakfast. So in some context, for example, "Elle mange le petit-déjeuner que son père lui a préparé", the use of definite article "le" is used to specify what food she is eating.

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It is true that French people don't say “Elle mange le petit-dejeuner”. But the reason is not that this would mean “the idea of breakfast”. The sentence is perfectly comprehensible, it's just not idiomatic at all. We might say “elle mange le petit déjeuner que j'ai préparé pour son frère” (she's eating the breakfast I prepared for her brother).

The idiomatic way to say that someone is eating is to use the verb.

Elle déjeune. Elle est en train de déjeuner.   She's having lunch.
Elle dîne. Elle est en train de dîner.   She's having dinner.

The phrasing with “en train de” emphasises that the action is currently ongoing. The straight use of the verb can mean either that she's currently having the meal or that it's a habitual action, i.e. it can correspond either to “she has …” or “she's having …”.

For breakfast, there's a difficulty: the verb is déjeuner, which is identical with lunch. If there's no risk of confusion, we'd just say “elle déjeune”. If there's a risk of confusion, we might say “*prendre son petit déjeuner”, e.g.

Il est onze heure mais elle est encore en train de prendre son petit déjeuner.   It's eleven o'clock but she's still having breakfast.

Sometimes petit-déjeuner is used as a verb, which resolves the ambiguity, but it isn't very common and may be considered non-standard.

  • Note that this confusion is specific to France. In Quebec, in the morning we have a déjeuner, at mid day we have a dîner and in the evening we have a "souper". All can be used as verbs or nouns. – ApplePie Jun 18 '17 at 4:10

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