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An interesting grammatical argument has come up with a friend of mine: which of the following sentences is correct, or are they both correct?

"The phone company can use less frequencies" or "The phone company can use fewer frequencies"

The rule is to use "fewer" when you have an enumerable quantity, and in this case, there are an infinite number of frequencies (i.e. an uncountable amount). However — and this is the source of the argument — "less frequencies" sounds wrong to my ears due to the pluralization of "frequencies". That is, this is a case where the plural is used for an uncountable quantity.

So is there a rule for this case?

P.S. This friend of mine has convinced me that I'm an incorrigible pedant, but I am still curious. I promise I won't use your answers as ammunition

  • The fact that there are infinite frequencies does not mean we cannot count how many a phone company is using, so fewer sounds right. But don't make promises that no one can keep. – Yosef Baskin Mar 14 '17 at 14:36
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    The word countable (not enumerable) in the rule you cite indicates grammatical number, not cardinal number. That is, just as to a chef a tomato is a vegetable but to botanist a tomato is a fruit, so to a mathematician the frequencies are uncountable but to a syntactician the frequencies are countable. Simple as that. Quick sniff test for future cases: if you can pluralize it, it's countable. If you can't, it might not be countable (ie mass), but there are edge case (like plurale tantum). Pedantic enough answer for you? Or do you want to corrige me more? – Dan Bron Mar 14 '17 at 14:40
  • Is no one going to call me out for saying syntactician when clearly a morphologist would study pluralization in English? Geez, all you pedants are being very corrigible today! ;) – Dan Bron Mar 14 '17 at 15:42
  • Less bandwidth would make more sense in this context – Neuromancer Mar 14 '17 at 21:01
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Ok, let's play incorrigible pedant. I'll go now, you can all take your turns in the comments.

English ain't algebra

English is not algebra¹, and treating it as it it were is a category error. This is the primrose path they're always going on about.

Case in point, @jejorda2 gives the correct answer, but for the wrong reasons. We don't answer grammatical questions with arguments from physics, just as we don't justify physical theories with arguments from grammar. Which is worse, you tell me.

Let's get on the same wavelength

The word countable (not enumerable) in the rule you cite refers to grammatical number, not cardinal number.

That is, just as to a chef a tomato is a vegetable but to a botanist a tomato is a fruit, so to a mathematician frequencies (the physical phenomena) are unenumerable, but to a syntactician frequency (the word) is countable.

The word and the phenomenon are not the same thing.

Incorriging future pedantry

Quick sniff test for future cases: if you can pluralize it², it's countable. If you can't, it might not be countable (i.e. mass), but there are edge cases (like plurale tantum).


¹ I mean "English isn't algebra" in a much broader sense than "it doesn't deal in the countability of infinities": I mean it in the sense of "English is a language: a messy, chaotic agglutination of artifacts produced by millions of people over centuries, in an ungoverned and ungovernable manner. Trying to apply algebraic transforms and expecting algebraic consistency is so misguided as to be "not even wrong".

The key takeaway from this message is that English is under no obligation to be logical. None at all. And it often uses this freedom. Sometimes, of course, it is perfectly logical, as in this case, where just because something has the potential to be infinite doesn't mean you can't count how many there actually are, as @Yosef Baskin points out in the comments. There are an infinite number of books in Borges' library: would you like to make the argument that book is uncountable†?

But to be clear, this particular instance of logical consistency isn't the basis of the justification of frequency (the word)'s countable status. The fact that people pluralize it is. English cannot be captured in closed and comprehensive set of rules. If you did that, it would just break those rules and make new ones. The best we can do with English is describe what we observe.

² Note: not if it is plural. That's a different test.

I know, I know, the Library has measure ℵ0. Sigh.

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    Just to add to your point: Neither statement in the OP is meaningful in a physically quantifiable sense. Phone companies use bandwidth and allocate bandwidth to channels. A channel can be related to a frequency, but just as likely it can be related to something else, which I won't get into here. BTW, splitting hairs by throwing Plank's name around doesn't add any meaning. – Canis Lupus Mar 14 '17 at 17:24
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    Dan: for some reason I never saw this! This is everything I could have dreamed of. Sorry for the delayed response – Mahkoe May 25 '17 at 22:15
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The number of frequencies that are used is countable.

The number of frequencies that can exist might seem like it should be infinite, but it is countable because the shortest wavelength is the Planck Length and the shortest frequency (and difference between frequencies) is the Planck Time. So the block of frequencies that the government makes available can only be divided into a countable number of frequencies.

"The phone company can use fewer frequencies" is correct.

  • This is the correct answer, but for the wrong reasons. We don't answer grammatical questions with arguments from physics, just as we don't justify physical theories with arguments from grammar. And honestly I don't know which is worse :) See my comment above for how we can justify your (correct) answer. Always remember: English is not algebra, and treating it like such is a category error. – Dan Bron Mar 14 '17 at 14:42

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