'You Can't Have Your Cake and Eat It Too': Definition, Meaning, Examples

By Carly Forsaith, updated on September 20, 2023

'You can't have your cake and eat it too' is a peculiar expression. Many protest and say that, of course, you can have a cake and eat it too. But they're simply misinterpreting the intended meaning of this popular idiom. Read on to find out what it means and how to use it.

If you just want the short version, here it is:

  • When someone says, 'You can't have your cake and eat it too,' they mean that you have to choose one of two desirable options. You can't have both.

What Does 'You Can't Have Your Cake and Eat It Too' Mean?

This expression is an idiom, which means you can't interpret the words literally. When someone says this, they aren't actually talking about cake. They mean you can't enjoy the benefits of two conflicting options or choices at the same time. In other words, it suggests that you have to choose between two mutually exclusive or contradictory things.

But many will say that you can have a cake and also eat it. But this expression means that once your cake is eaten, you'll no longer have it. So you can't eat it and have it. You must choose to either have it or eat it.

The dictionary defines it as follows:

to have or do two good things at the same time that are impossible to have or do at the same time

For example, suppose someone is trying to maintain two jobs simultaneously. In that case, each with conflicting schedules and demands, to tell them they need to choose one position or the other because it's not possible to enjoy the benefits of both at the same time fully, you might say:

You can't have your cake and eat it too; you need to choose one job or you'll burn out.

Where Does 'You Can't Have Your Cake and Eat It Too' Come From?

The phrase "you can't have your cake and eat it too" has a long history and can be traced back to various iterations in different languages over the centuries. Interestingly, the verb order used to be reversed, to 'you can't have your cake and eat it too,' up until at least the 1930s or 40s.

While we don't know precisely where this saying originated from or who started it, we do know that many countries the world over have their own version and that it dates back to at least 1539, when it appeared in a letter from Thomas, Duke of Norfolk, to Thomas Cromwell.

Other appearances include John Heywood's 1546 A Dialogue Conteinyng the Nomber in Effect of all the Prouerbes in the Englishe Tongue:

Wolde ye both eate your cake, and haue your cake?

It's also found in John Davies's 1611 Scourge of Folly:

A man cannot eat his cake and haue it stil.

Over time, the phrase evolved into the more commonly used version we know today. The meaning has remained consistent: it conveys the idea that you can't retain something for future use while also consuming or enjoying it in the present.

Examples in Sentences

Now we've covered the meaning of the phrase and we know it's been used for centuries, let's take a look at some example sentences.

Note that this expression uses the personal pronoun 'you' and the possessive adjective 'your,' but you can swap these out for other pronouns depending on the sentence's subject, as follows:

  • I/my
  • you/your
  • he/his
  • she/hers
  • they/their
  • we/our

Now, here are the examples:

I know you want to take that dream vacation, but you've already used up all your vacation days this year. You can't have your cake and eat it too.

He wants to have a successful career while also spending all his time playing video games. It's like he thinks he can have his cake and eat it too.

He wants to graduate high school but he doesn't want to do his homework. He needs to realize he can't have his cake and eat it too.

She's trying to save money, but she keeps going on shopping sprees. She can't have her cake and eat it too when it comes to finances.

The company expected us to work longer hours without any increase in pay, so we resigned. The moral of the story is they can't have their cake and eat it too.

I know don't want to sell your house but you need the money to move. You can't have your cake and eat it too.

She's torn between pursuing a high-paying job in the city and living a peaceful life in the countryside. It's a classic case of wanting to have her cake and eat it too.

The team wants to win the championship, but they also want to skip practice. They need to realize they can't have their cake and eat it too when it comes to sports.

He's in a dilemma—he wants to eat all the delicious snacks in the house, but he's trying to stick to a strict diet. You can't have your cake and eat it too when it comes to healthy eating.

The government promises to cut taxes while increasing public services, but economists argue that you can't have your cake and eat it too. 

Other Ways to Say 'You Can't Have Your Cake and Eat It Too'

Here are some other ways to say that you can't have it both ways:

  • You can't have it both ways.
  • You can't serve two masters.
  • You can't ride two horses with one behind.
  • You can't split the difference.
  • You can't be in two places at once.
  • You can't have the best of both worlds.
  • You can't straddle the fence.
  • You can't have your foot in two boats.

In Conclusion

So, to conclude, this idiom has been used for many centuries and has variations worldwide. 'You can't have your cake and eat it too' is a phrase used to emphasize the need to make a decision when faced with conflicting desires or options.

Are you ready to learn more English phrases and expand your vocabulary? Check out our idioms blog for idioms, expressions, sayings, and more!  

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Written By:
Carly Forsaith
Carly Forsaith is one of the lead freelance writers for WritingTips.org. Carly is a copywriter who has been writing about the English language for over 3 years. Before that, she was a teacher in Thailand, helping people learn English as a second language. She is a total grammar nerd and spends her time spotting language errors on signs and on the internet.

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