German doesn't differentiate between present tense and present continuous tense as English language does. For instance,

Ich esse Brot

means, "I eat/am eating bread".

The same applies to the verb "habe".

Wir haben Essen

This can mean, "We have/are having food".

However, in English, one generally* uses

We are having food - meaning I am consuming the food


We have food - Just literal meaning of 'have'

So, if someone says

Wir haben Essen

How does German differentiate whether the person is "consuming" or just "possessing"?

[*] Some readers can disagree and say, "One can even use the present continuous even for possession". But the common interpretation if someone says "having food", means, "consuming".

  • By context. That sounds like a poor substitute for explicit inflection, and in some respects it is, but languages differ in what they express obligatorily and what they don't. (And this isn't the most extreme case. Mandarin expresses tense non-obligatorily! How do they know whether someone is talking about the past or the future? By context.) Commented Dec 5, 2014 at 8:05

3 Answers 3


We are having food.

can be expressed as:

Wir essen gerade.

Wir sind gerade am Essen.

Wir sind gerade dabei zu essen.

Wir sind zu Tisch / am Tisch.

Wir haben gerade Frühstück / Lunch / Mittag / Abendbrot.


We have food

translates to

Wir haben Essen.

Wir haben etwas zu essen.

expressing the possession.

  • It should be noted that "Wir sind am/beim Essen" expresses progressive aspect without "gerade" or similar. Actually, it becomes accepted that "am Essen" is a true, grammaticalized progressive aspect of German.
    – Veredomon
    Commented Dec 5, 2014 at 15:47
  • Yes, it is not standard written German.
    – Liglo App
    Commented Dec 5, 2014 at 15:58
  • According to Duden Online, "am" is supposed to be colloquial, which is just becoming wrong very fast. "beim" is accepted, at least there is no such limitation mentioned.
    – Veredomon
    Commented Dec 5, 2014 at 16:02

Essen haben can only mean to possess food. If somebody is having food, the verb essen must be used. Same goes for drinks (Drink, Getränk and trinken).

  • 1
    That is correct. However "trinken" requires a workaround when used in the way you described. While you can say "Wir haben Essen" the equivalent for drinks would have to be "Wir haben etwas zu trinken" since "Essen" can both be a noun and a verb while "trinken" is solely a verb.
    – J_LV
    Commented Dec 5, 2014 at 5:21

Usually the continuous form in German is expressed using respective signal words, like

gerade, im Moment, momentan, augenblicklich, zurzeit, etc.

I can't currently think of an example there I/We am/are having translates to Ich/Wir habe/n.

I am having a drink => Ich trinke (gerade) etwas
We are having food => Wir essen (gerade)

The only pattern that comes to my mind is

I am having/I have problems with... => Ich habe gerade/Ich habe (für gewöhnlich) Probleme mit...
I am having/I have fun... => Ich habe gerade/Ich habe (für gewöhnlich) Spaß ...

but in neither of the examples I can think of the use of the simple form would indicate possession German. It's merely the difference between something happening right now or something happening usually.

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