All airtime is billed by the second after the first minute, additional local and domestic long distance minutes are $0.10 per minute.

My phone company and I are arguing over the use of the word 'additional' in the above phrase.

I think it means that any additional local and any ADDITIONAL domestic long distance minutes incurred will be charged at a rate of $0.10 per minute.

They think it means any additional local minutes are $0.10 per minute. All domestic long distance calls are $0.10 per minute regardless of time of day.

From an English language point of view what role does the word additional play in this statement?

  • You're probably on a hiding to nothing there - the phone company knows the reality of their charging system, and they're hardly likely to change that just because you don't like their wording. First up though, we'd need to know the "prior context" of the word additional. My guess is you have an "allowance" of local minutes, and any usage beyond that woud thus be "additional". But if there's no allowance of domestic long distance minutes, in what sense could any others be called "additional"? – FumbleFingers Nov 27 '12 at 0:51
  • @FumbleFingers What does "on a hiding to nothing there" mean? – ErikE Nov 27 '12 at 9:10
  • @ErikE: Sorry - perhaps it's a Briticism. As answered previously, it means you've little chance of a successful outcome. – FumbleFingers Nov 27 '12 at 13:13

Grammatically, what the adjective additional modifies is ambiguous. It could modify only local minutes or it could modify both local minutes and long distance minutes. There's no point in arguing about what it means. The first clause is also syntactically a little funny. To be absolutely clear, the sentence requires a slight redrafting:

All airtime after the first minute is billed by the second; additional minutes, both local and domestic long distance, are $0.10 per minute.

This is unambiguous. It says what's true: All calls cost $0.10 per minute after the first minute.

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What they are trying to convey is that

  • any call from 0 to 60 seconds long is 10¢
  • any call from 61 to 67 seconds long is 11¢
  • any call from 68 to 74 seconds long is 12¢

And so on.

The idea is that the first minute is one lump: 10¢. From then on, it's 1¢ every six seconds.

They are not trying to distinguish between local and long-distance calls.

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  • Are they saying it's 1c for every six seconds, or 10c for every minute or part of a minute (0-60s = 10c; 61-120s = 20c)? UK carriers would certainly charge in the latter fashion given that wording. – Andrew Leach Nov 27 '12 at 8:25
  • It says "airtime is billed by the second" after the first minute. – Malvolio Nov 27 '12 at 9:37
  • Aha. So it does. So presumably part-cents are counted and added together when totalling all calls. – Andrew Leach Nov 27 '12 at 9:39
  • @AndrewLeach -- Most companies do not account for sub-cent amounts. Banks do, but phone company (afaik) round down. – Malvolio Nov 27 '12 at 9:43

The word additional is ambiguous because it could modify just local or also long distance.

To start with, it does say All airtime is billed by the second after the first minute. This initially seems to very clearly favor the understanding that additional minutes of any kind, local or long distance, are billed by the second after the first minute. It is an unrestricted and absolute sentence, with no qualifications to it, that clearly addresses all airtime of any kind.

(Now, whether or not the first minute is billed at all is unclear; the first sentence could be stating that the first minute is charged for even if the call lasts less than one minute, or it could be saying that the first minute has no charge at all.)

The interpretation of additional as meaning "outside of some allotted number of free minutes" really has no basis if claimed on the merit of these two sentences alone. The given wording militates against there being any free minutes of any kind at all. The statements do not clearly indicate "in addition to what" the said additional minutes refer to (additional to the first minute, or additional to the free/allotted minutes?). But that is in your favor! Given this glaring omission of how there can be additional minutes of any kind (when it just categorically said ALL airtime after the first minute is billed), it does become quite natural--if the context of all the surrounding language clearly denotes the existence of free minutes--to assume that "additional" refers to minutes "in addition to the free ones."

In the absence of a clear statement elsewhere that free minutes only apply to local calls, I think a good case can be made that a reasonable human being could both misunderstand the intent, and also not recognize that there was any ambiguity. If, however, other language indicates the free minutes can only apply to local calls, then this unfortunate ambiguity can't stand--it has to be interpreted in light of the other information.

In any case, it is very awkwardly and ambiguously worded. Saying "... minutes are $0.10 per minute" is silly! Either "airtime is $0.10 per minute." or "minutes are $0.10 each". Clearly, not all airtime is billed by the second after the first minute. So it shouldn't say that. It has problems.

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