The Distinction Dossier: A Numbers Game

Today marks the first uncovering of The Distinction Dossier, a collection of important distinctions present in the English language.

Distinctions in the English language are much like ambiguities, insofar as it is impossible to begin with the most fundamental instance whereon one could build a logical system of sequential meaning, which is to say that there are many.

Therefore, I have decided to record these distinctions somewhat based upon my finding them to be the most ubiquitously erroneous—but mostly as they interest me. And, as there are a number of words used in the English language that amount to a number of distinctions, I have decided today’s distinction to concern one of my favorite obsessions: counting. 


Number is one of those words that, after saying it or looking at it a few times, quickly begins to sound or read as nonsense. Additionally, number is used when referring to items that one can count; therefore, these things must be concrete, discrete, Enlightenment era kind of things: a number of pages, a number of contestants, a number of beagles. Another question often arises anent number’s verb agreement, which is singular when preceded by the definite article the and plural when preceded by the indefinite article a

Amount refers to quantities of something ultimately uncountable through cardinal numbers alone: an amount of water, an amount of chocolate pudding, an amount of sweat. It might be helpful for some to remember that, in this way, amount must be employed only when describing quantities that might take either a scientific unit—a liter’s amount of ethanol—or an amateur one: a bathtub’s amount of Pruno. Amount may also be used to describe abstract concepts: an amount of happiness, and amount of grief, an amount of success.


The distinction here again consists of things can and cannot be counted. There are fewer things whenever a number of items are reduced to another countable collection: three fewer pencils, six fewer cars, nine fewer flowers. There is less of something either whenever an amount is reduced to another amount that cannot be measured discretely or when what is being measured is abstract: less guilt about the situation, less love for my ex-wife, less Pruno in the bathtub. 


Use farther whenever you want to describe a physical distance that can be measured: that tree is farther away, the city is sixty miles farther, I ran farther than he did. Use further to describe abstract distances that cannot be measured: Nothing could be further from the truth; my mind has never been further from my work; I’m even further removed from the situation.

Between/Amongst (Among)

Whether as a preposition or an adverb, between is used when describing or comparing two things: between two elm trees, between Mike and Maria, between the times of X and Y. Although consisting of the same parts of speech, Amongst/among describes or compares three or more things: amongst the forest’s trees, amongst the throng, amongst the library’s tomes.

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