How Many Angels Can Dance on the Head of a Pin – Meaning, Origin and Usage

Have you seen the question ‘how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?’ and would like to know more context, the origin or the meaning of this common expression? The term is a common rhetorical question, and it can sometimes lead to confusion if you have never heard it before. This post unpacks the meaning and origin of this expression.

Meaning

The expression ‘how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?’ is a common rhetorical question that is used to illustrate a theoretical point and often is said to evoke a discussion between participants on answers to the question.

The question is like many other rhetorical questions or thought riddles that can have multiple answers, or have several answers when the question is discussed in-depth.

Questions like ‘how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?’ can be used as a theoretical sentence that illustrates how difficult something is to answer when the two things are compared.

Usually, the context of the expression is clear from the context of the rest of the sentence – although for anyone who does not know its meaning, the expression can still create a lot of confusion.

Sometimes a variaton of the expression can also be used, which can change the expression to the question ‘how many angels can fit on the head of a pin?’ instead of asking the question of how many qngels can dance.

The term is never used in the denial form, and the subject never asks how many angels cannot fit on the head of a pin.

The alternative ‘pinhead’ instead of ‘head of a pin’ can also be used.

Example Usage

“I didn’t know the answer to the question, so I just asked him how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. I think he understood what I meant by it.”

“If you aren’t sure just what to do with your life, nobody is really sure. I mean, how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”

“There’s a lot of different music genres in the world. Asking me which one of them I like the most is a lot like asking someone how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.”

“If you ask me what I want to do for a living one more time, you might as well just ask me how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. It’s just as hard to answer.”

Origin

The origin of the theoretical question ‘how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?’ originates from early philosophy texts authored in the 11th Century.

According to language resources, this specific question originates from Thomas Aquinas’ book Summa Theologica. The text asks several questions of the reader, most of them about the behavior and means of angels, including the one that gives rise to the saying: how many angels can fit on the head of a pin?

The answer is subject to much debate, and the saying is often used to illustrate how difficult or impossible something would be to answer.

Phrases Similar to How Many Angels Can Dance on the Head of a Pin

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Phrases Opposite to How Many Angels Can Dance on the Head of a Pin

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What is the Correct Saying?

  • How many angels can dance on the head of a pin/pinhead?
  • How many angels can fit on the head of a pin/pinhead?

Ways People May Say How Many Angels Can Dance on the Head of a Pin Incorrectly

There are several ways in which people might use the term in the wrong way, or misunderstand the expression.

‘How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?’ is a philosophical question that has no real answer, and it is often used to illustrate the difficulty (or debatability) of something specific in comparison.

If someone does not understand the expression, then its meaning can be easily misunderstood.

Acceptable Ways to Phrase How Many Angels Can Dance on the Head of a Pin

The correct way to use the phrase ‘how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?’ is to use it to illustrate the debatability (or difficulty) of a question or issue by comparison with the question.

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