I have a problem with the interpretation of this sentence.

Fat cannot change into muscle any more than muscle can change into fat.

I guess that it would mean either 1 or 2 below.

  1. The change from muscle to fat is more likely to happen than the change from fat to muscle. (This implies that fat can change into muscle even a little.)

  2. Fat cannot change into muscle, and muscle cannot change into fat either

Is either one of these correct? If so, which one? If not, what is the right interpretation?

  • 1 and 2 are wrong. It's simply an idiom meaning "it is ridiculous". It's like saying "pigs may fly." That's all it is.
    – Fattie
    Aug 4 '20 at 13:31
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    2. is correct. While No.1 is an accurate interpretation technically, that is never how this phrase is used. Aug 4 '20 at 15:05
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    You might want to make it explicit that you are asking about linguistic correctness (I assume you are?) and not biological correctness.
    – jamesqf
    Aug 5 '20 at 0:21
  • @jamesqf: My question is purely about English language, not about biological stuff. Problems for me is lack of general knowledge in addition to English language deficiency itself. The first option of my two kinds of interpretations might have been excluded if I had had good knowledge about the fat-to-muscle or muscle-to-fat conversion things. I must confess that the idea "muscle can change into fat" was not definitely impossible thing as far as I'm concerned, and the lack of such knowledge made my understanding of the sentence even poor.
    – Takashi
    Aug 5 '20 at 6:40

It means something close to your option (2): Fat can’t change into muscle, just like (as you may already know) muscle can’t change into fat. Regardless of its scientific correctness, this is the meaning that the phrasing implies.

Generally, phrases like “Eagles cannot swim any more than sharks can fly” are an idiomatic construction. They essentially always mean Eagles can’t swim, just like (as you may already know) sharks can’t fly — or in more detail:

  • it’s impossible, or very unlikely, for sharks to fly (and this is usually assumed as likely background knowledge for the writer and reader);
  • and it is similarly unlikely for eagles to swim (and this is the main new information the writer is giving the reader).

This phrasing is always used to express impossibility/unlikeliness like this — it does not just mean “ability of eagles to swim ≤ ability of sharks to fly”, as a literal logical reading would entail. For instance, one would never naturally say or write the following, even though strictly logically they’re true:

  • *Eagles cannot swim any more than dogs can walk.
  • *Eagles cannot fly any more than dogs can walk.

And slightly more subtly, the first impossibility is the main new information being asserted, while the second one is typically presumed as background knowledge; so one would not say

  • *Pigs cannot fly any more than elephants can jump.

because although both of these are impossible, readers can be assumed to know the first impossibility more than the second.

  • 2
    On its own, I would agree with you. In a context, one may decide that the other meaning was correct. Particularly if they then go on to prove how fat can turn into muscle. I would not expect this in a fitness story, but a philosophical discussion might use it!
    – Cort Ammon
    Aug 3 '20 at 22:00
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    the first comment here by @eckes is ridiculous / bizarre / utterly incorrect and should be deleted.
    – Fattie
    Aug 4 '20 at 13:35
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    @Fattie: I don't understand the chain of reasoning in your first comment. It appears to me that OP's (2) is very nearly right, and PLL has just added a parenthetical to clarify it...
    – Kevin
    Aug 4 '20 at 15:55
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    It's worth noting it's a poorly-used, confusing idiom. What the writer "meant" to write was, say, "Fat cannot change into muscle any more than eyeballs can change into muscle." or some such humorous choice. It's confusing to use the reversal as the second part. The second part has to be super obvious. It is NOT super-obvious that muscle cannot change in to fat. It has to be something RIDICULOUS, for the comparison in the second part.
    – Fattie
    Aug 4 '20 at 17:29
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    @Fattie it really depends on the context. Maybe it's common knowledge in the fitness community that muscles cannot turn into fat, but the jury had, up to this point, still been out on the converse. (I wouldn't know.)
    – user168715
    Aug 5 '20 at 2:03

There are two possibilities stated here:

(A) An event where fat changes into muscle
(B) An event where muscle changes into fat

The construction here ('not any more than') means the probability of (A) is lower than or equal to (B). That's all you can derive from analyzing the grammar, so both option 1. and 2. could be the truth.

However, assuming that you know from biology class that (B) isn't possible at all, we can conclude that (A) isn't possible either. So in this case, option 2. is intended.

  • Thanks Glorfindel. Your explanation is very clear and easy to understand. It has, however, brought me a new question, which is "Does that (your answer) leave open a possibility that the interpretation (option 2) might change in the future if scientific development reveals a new biological fact indicating that muscle can actually change into fat?"
    – Takashi
    Aug 3 '20 at 8:07
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    We use "no more than" or "any more than" to signify an impossibilty or untruth, by linking it to something else impossible or untrue. I can no more make Jane love me than I can fly to the Moon unaided. Gasoline cannot change into water any more than water can change into gasoline. Thus the proposed interpretation (2) is the correct one. Of course, future scientific advances might make such a transformation possible; I may be able to fly to the moon unaided, but this is expression is usually interpreted as a final statement. Aug 3 '20 at 8:38
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    To explain it another way, the two statements don't have any causal relationship. It's just an analogy between two statements.
    – Barmar
    Aug 3 '20 at 15:43
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    Also worth mentioning that that particular construct is almost always used to compare with something impossible, or at least highly unlikely. So even if you don't know that muscle can't change into fat, the form of the quote implies that — and therefore claims that fat can't change into muscle either.
    – gidds
    Aug 3 '20 at 17:26
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    I'm afraid, Glorfindel, that @MichaelHarvey has it absolutely right. The OP's sentence means, unambiguously, that fat cannot change into muscle and muscle cannot change into fat. It doesn't require any knowledge of molecular biology to deduce this.
    – TonyK
    Aug 3 '20 at 19:55

“A can’t B any more than C can D” means the same thing as “A can’t B just like C can’t D.”

For either idiom to work, the audience must already know that C can’t D.

With the “any more than” version, there is an added sense that thinking C can D is ridiculous, and therefore it is just as ridiculous to think that A can B, whereas the “just like” version is more factual.

Note that you should check that the things you are comparing with this idiom are both, in fact, impossible. For instance, if you said “birds can’t swim any more than fish can fly,” your statement would be undermined by swimming birds and flying fish. Advanced speakers might do this (or other strange things) ironically to subvert the idiom, but it’s more likely to be an error.

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