The Divine Intimacy

The strength of a short story may be evaluated by various quality-judgements. And, as the nomenclature suggests, short stories haven’t the time to unimpress. Fortunately, there are many routes that one may take to perform such a feat; the best-cobbled path is, however, in the same fashion as one would win the heart of a lover: intimacy. Dennis Johnson’s collection of linked short stories, Jesus’ Son, not only deeply affects the reader, but also possesses one’s soul with a devilish intimacy nearly divine in its courtship. Some might moot artistic afflatus; some might point to the rampant drug abuse. I remain nevertheless steadfast in the opinion that these slices of someone’s literary heaven exist from a mastery of craft. It may be interpreted that Johnson completes this coaxing, in part, by three forms of ingratiation: a conversational first-person-reportage narrative style, the acknowledgment of the reader with the second-person, and the Big Kiss Goodnight ending.

Johnson’s stories feel like a shifty, likely armed man in a dusty jean jacket whispering unspeakables. Whenever a shifty, likely armed man in a dusty jean jacket descries us at a social gathering and, after cornering us with his broad shoulders, proceeds to delineate to us his heaviest moments, we normally fear for our lives. Though this is often the prudent choice for those in favor of a full life, the opposite is likely our response to Jesus’ Son. Johnson earns our affections with his conversational first-person-reportage narrative style. Reportage, though often considered unliterary, is pungent with authenticity, for it most closely imitates someone speaking directly to us about one’s life. The reportage style is told using the past perfect tense, “I’d been staying at the holiday Inn with my girlfriend,” in conjunction with the simple past tense, “we made love in the bed,” often also using signifying wording, such as “I remember.” Neither does it hurt to compare one’s Holiday Inn romance with a heroin-junkie to Dante’s climb to Paradiso and the Empyrean with his truest love, Beatrice: “we…carried one another to heaven.”

What do you think about the use of the second person to acknowledge the reader? I am not certain about it, but I shall leave that up to you to decide. I trust your judgement. In any case, it certainly is personal. On the wrong day in Germany, you could get the bamboo cane for it. But, in Jesus’ Son, you understand the second person to be a term of endearment, as this usage suggests: “And you, you ridiculous people, you expect me to help you.” Consider this supremely yarn-like confidence that Johnson unravels, after confiding in us some heavy exposition about the characters in his story Two Men: “My two friends and I went to get into my little green Volkswagen, and we discovered the man I started to tell you about, the first man, sleeping in the backseat.” Remember?

What is the Big Kiss Goodnight ending? It is what everyone wants. Moreover, it also seems to be a tactic of writers who enjoy finishing stories with a smooch of the angelic. In accordance with the aforementioned considerations as regards a short story’s incapacity to allow a moment’s somnolence, its ending might perhaps be its most important time to excite, and the stories in Jesus’ Son do not leave us blue. Indeed, each story ends with a bang. 

Consider this coda at the end of a story about a less than gentle man named Dundun: “Will you believe me when I tell you there was kindness in his heart? His left hand didn’t know what his right hand was doing. It was only that certain important connections had been burned through. If I opened up your head and ran a hot soldering iron around in your brain, I might turn you into someone like that.” Or this uplifting bit: “Your husband will beat you with an extension cord and the bus will pull away leaving you standing there in tears, but you were my mother.”

Of course, this narrator had no filial connection with the barmaid about whom he is reporting, but that has never been a qualification when considering if one has been another’s mother. 

Waugh Who

There is indeed nowadays an armed and steadily growing posse of masters. What with masterclasses, master’s degrees, and masterpieces around every corner, one begins to deliberate over the validity of whether or not one has been duped all along—hoodwinked, shammed out of his birthright that he is yet too an undiscovered master of something or other. Much like the words “amazing,” “crazy,” “awesome,” “impactful,” “unique,” and, every half-literate’s favorite, “problematic,” “master” has taken the initial and regretful Cheeto-crud-on-the-fingers-bathing-suit-tucked-under-the-panniculus stumble towards its bellyflop into meaninglessness. This is all to say that one should, at the very least, attempt to choose one’s words with some intention, and it is with not a little attention that I classify Evelyn Waugh as past master status. And, although Waugh claimed P.G. Wodehouse “the head of (his) profession,” it is in Waugh’s short story Scott King’s Modern Europe in which one may be masterfully classed on the rhetorical devices, grammatical gifts, and narrative tones it takes to make a worthy work of wit. 

Rhetorical devices are the invisible patterns upon the page that make readers smirk and wonder at how a human with only one frontal cortex could turn a phrase so well, the same invisible patterns that make writers lower their heads, peep intermittently out the window, and wait for the approach of the rioting public with hot oils and blunt instruments who had just gotten hip to the jig that he’s been passing off Ancient Greek hand-me-downs at freshly woven silk prices. Waugh, in the course of less than forty pages, performs the unabashed huckstering worthy of a Middle Eastern bazar. 

Most people, even my father, a man of precisely no reading at all, knows what a simile is. Most people, however, do not know a good simile whenever they see one. Allow me to play the purveyor: “He had been cross-questioned about his past and his future, the state of his health and finances, as though he were applying for permanent employment of a confidential nature.” Scott King, Waugh’s British protagonist seems to be rather discontent with his brief examination upon entering the nation of Neutralia: allegorized post-war, socialist continental Europe. The always playful transferred epithet scoots in shortly thereafter, titillating lookers-on with a quick one to the ribs about the story’s oddly breathtaking communist town hottie, Miss Sveningen: “Think of her striding between the beds, a pigtail, bare feet, and in her hand a threatening hairbrush.” Anaphora makes its first appearance twice when King speaks to the comically ingratiating communist professor, Dr. Fe: “There was more than politeness in Dr. Fe’s greeting; there was definite solicitude,” this repetition creating an emphatic effect. That same professor’s depiction of Neutralia’s liberation is eye-squinting in that unique way that many of us now may very readily connote with some contemporary views under the iron regime of Critical Theory: “Then we were liberated and put under the Serbs. Now we are liberated again and put under the Russians.” This fine use of isocolon, better known today as parallelism, achieves a repetition that, in conjunction with its connotation in the repeated word here in question, creates an ironic effect suggestive of successful academic menticide—also a very relatable theme for today’s universities. And a good mix is always appreciated. Consider the following right upstairs, left to the liver of alliteration and overstatement: “But here the din banged back from gilding and mirrors; above the clatter and chatter of the dinner table and the altercations of the waiters, a mixed choir of young people sang folk songs, calculated to depress the most jovial village festival;” though, for me, this is sober empiricism.

Yet one can create feats of wit with good, old grammar as well. Consider how much this simple absolute adds to an otherwise commonplace description: “He took Whitemaid by the arm and led him out of the hall to a cool and secluded landing where stood a little settee of gilt and plush, a thing not made for sitting on.” The key as regards witty grammar is to tincture its instances with a taste of the playful. A settee in indeed constructed entirely for humans to rest their limbs as they see fit, but Waugh revokes that privilege, suggesting something curious about the furniture that leads the lips of readers curling accordingly. In English, the Passive Voice has been, for some reason, forbidden by literary authorities as weak and spineless, and the writerly equivalent of filching the last of grandma’s money from her purse. The passive voice, however, is much funnier than the active voice, as it deletes the subject, indeed suggesting the subject as entirely unimportant, further intimating the subject’s stiff-lipped reaction to the scenario, perhaps mildly offended by it all: “Scott-King petulantly joined issue on this point. Strong words were used of him. “Fascist beast.”—“Reactionary cannibal.”—“Bourgeois escapist.” If his sentence were used in the active voice, the same image of rejection would simply not be enforced. Even something as simple as verb tenses can be used to inspire the acquisition of new facial muscles: “The waiters had drunk and were drinking profusely of brandy and there was a bottle at hand.” Verb tenses, and therefore the passing of time, can be used to achieve humorous results. Here, we have the past perfect tense followed by the past continuous tense, followed still by present bottle, suggesting the protractedness of the activity. This usage of two tenses in direct succession also aids in producing a kind of scene-transition effect, wherein we see the waiters drinking, then perhaps some time goes by, after which we expect the waiters to have completed the sluicing, only to find that they have unnaturally prolonged the activity.

In truth, one could almost give all of the above-mentioned the heave-ho, if one had an infallible command of narrative tone. One of the combinations above used overstatement, a fine comedic tone forsooth, but the understatement is the undisputed heavyweight champion: “The party trailed out through the swing doors into the dusty evening heat, leaving the noblemen to compare their impressions of Miss. Sveningen’s legs. The subject was not exhausted when they returned; indeed had it risen earlier in the year it would have served as the staple conversation for the whole Bellacita season.” Legs tend to have that effect on men, a woman’s legs all the more, a Nordic snow-queen’s of mythological length being thus a certainly. Yet understatements need not be about legs; they can indeed be about any body part and its function: “He hiccupped without intermission throughout the long dinner.” Here, a simple “he hiccupped a lot” would have had the same logic but lost all the sense. Comedians and comediennes alike make sweeping statements. Comedy is meant to make grotesque spectacles of otherwise quiet characteristics or foibles. To suggest that the man next to whom you spent your morning commute emitted a scent wicked enough to send Lot’s wife sprinting out of the salt is a slightly more entertaining image than reporting that he smelled bad. Therefore, get out your broom and sweep. Waugh could push one with the best of them: “The foyer was empty save for Miss Bombaum who sat smoking a cigar with a man of repellent aspect.” A man of repellent aspect? It is additionally funny due to its receiving no further description, thus no debate can be made. He was bloody repellent. That is all. This is not to be confused with making a witty aside. Witty asides are slivers of smartly crafted opinion that show the reader that the writer has thought a lot about the subject at hand, usually not positively. When describing a confused gaggle of herd-mind socialists, Waugh proffers the following: “Noah’s animals cannot have embarked with less sense of the object of their journey.”

Just like cashiers at the grocery, writers of comedy should change registers, making the switch from high language to low, the ornate and well-spoken to a slag-lad of the gutter: “Scott King was an adult, an intellectual, a classical scholar, almost a poet; provident Nature who shields the slow tortoise and points the quills of the porcupine, has given to such tender spirits their appropriate armor. A shutter, an iron curtain, fell between Scott-King and these two jokers.” Just as finally seeing the hilarious things at which everyone’s already hacking up their insides violently is an enjoyable time for most, should one, to achieve the same effect, place powerful images at the end of sentences. It is the long-awaited reveal; the man walking carefully along the icy sidewalk who has finally begun to dance—the cologne-drenched gentleman in the BMW who has been revving it for hussies coming it out of the bar at 2:00 a.m. finally losing grip on his latest drift, remodeling his vehicle upon the nearest metal road barrier; or, a beautiful giant of a Nordic female upon a balcony in a bath towel devouring a large cut of meat: “The windows stood wide open onto the balcony and on the balcony, modestly robed in bath towels, sat Miss Sveningen eating beefsteak.”

If one has not yet deduced the general pattern for oneself, it is indeed the clever changes and juxtapositions, whatever those might be, that carry the day and take home the big win. One very effective way to experience this is to suddenly change either the mood of the narrative or the characters proximity to the events before-described, as in the following: “Dr. Fe, when they met, showed the reserve proper of a man of delicate feeling who had in emotion revealed too much of himself. It was a happy day for Scott-King. Not so for his colleagues.” Or, “Scott-King petulantly joined issue on this point. Strong words were used of him. Fascist beast—Reactionary cannibal—Bourgeois escapist. Scott King withdrew from the meeting.”

The Problem of Today

Standard English expects the present perfect tense to be always used whenever the adverb of time, today, is used.

Have you seen Aunt Sarah today?

Yes, I have seen Aunt Sarah today.

Although the examiners at the Cambridge Exam would applaud one’s blanket usage thereof, I should employ my hands upon a different task, dipping them first into the glue, thence the glass. 

Although myself a trifle to the right on the Descriptivist/Purist scale, I nevertheless call the case of limpeting on to this usage of the present perfect, as one does the ship’s mast before the final plunge, a load of the shoddiest. Tenses should be used discriminately, to denote time and one’s passage through it. Rules should not simply exist. 

It might insult the sensitive reader to hazard forth that the simple past tense denotes events that occurred in only the past, whilst the present perfect denotes those that have occurred in both the past and at present. Past this, I ask, then: does today happen before, now, or after?

Let us examine again the case of Aunt Sarah. The general idea is that today is not over. You just might see Aunt Sarah in the same collection of 24-hours that have been allotted the title; therefore, you have seen Aunt Sarah.

With this, I agree. This present perfect usage is paramount, whenever, for example, one works with Aunt Sarah in the same building and seeing her again is merely the work of one’s pivoting around the next corner, or one lives in the general area as Aunt Sarah, and she’s known to stop by with baked goods or bad news, or she’s prone to spontaneous FaceTime calls on the same day that you have already seen her, or oneself is a known serial visitor of Aunt Sarah. I take issue, however, with the fact that, if you ever saw Aunt Sarah, then you are mistaken.

A dismissal of the simple past tense’s “I saw Aunt Sarah today” as purely an American vulgarism smacks of the worst kind of linguistic injustice. And, indeed, it is regarded as something of a singularly American sin to say, I saw Aunt Sarah today.

It would be correct, however, to say: I saw Aunt Sarah earlier today, for it uses earlier to denote a time that happened before and will never again occur, so the simple past tense it approved.

Firstly, about this, I should state the obvious: In the sentence, I saw Aunt Sarah today, the earlier is simply omitted and therefore implied; we are intelligently implying that some part of today ended, never to return, or that a particular event or function is now history. In this case, stating earlier would also be something tantamount to a redundancy. And, aside from within the plays of Shakespeare, redundancy is given the stink-eye.

I wrote an article today.


I have written an article today.

I wrote the article, and I am no longer writing the article, thus the action of my writing the article exists solely in the past—but it all happened today. Additionally, I wrote the article during the the morning, a bit in the afternoon, and knitted the loose ends together during the evening. Am I simply to say, then, that I wrote the article earlier? When was earlier? Well, in bits throughout the day. Which day? Today? Yes. Surely, I could rewrite the article later that same day; I could edit the article, too. I could even, though my Sloth prevents it, write another article. However, I can never write that same article again today. The article, as both an idea and artifact, is complete. I cannot link the completed artifact to any present action; therefore, it’s simply in the past.

Let us return to Aunt Sarah, whom I have seen today—only.

Oh, yes? Although Aunt Sarah was viewed by Yours Humbly in the later forenoon through to the early afternoon, lives three hours away by car, hasn’t a computer, smart phone, car of her own, or nearby train-line, enjoys a healthy dose of agoraphobia, is not prone to kidnappings, has an aortic embolism, lost her voice to a pleasant life of Pall Malls, and doesn’t have any legs? It would be for my money that I saw Aunt Sarah today. Need I say earlier? Is that not obvious? More often than not, a common day on Earth begins with the sun’s rising, its staying overhead for some amount of time, and its setting. Moreover, humanity has added things such as seconds, minutes, even hours therein. To complicate things even further, we’ve given names to certain clusters of hours; there’s breakfast, second-breakfast, elevenses, lunch, dinner, supper. You know about those, don’t you?

I sympathize towards rules. I am, however, sympathetic towards rules that exist only due to their making sense; I believe that the smudge in the painting should be intentional. We have an at the end of nouns to show the plural, we have pronouns to make sense of antecedents, and we have verb-tenses to understand one’s relation to time. But, if someone corrects your saw with a have seen, firstly, consider if you perhaps truly have made a mistake. Upon vindication, tell the offender that you’ll see him later, which doesn’t actually mean that you’ll see him later, if that isn’t obvious to him already—but, maybe, for obvious reasons, he’ll require the clarification. 

It’s not Alright

If I were given a dime for every time I’ve heard “but, language is flexible; it changes,” then I should have just a few extra dollars, for my friends, thank God, are not literature undergraduates. The damage that this now worthless phrase has inflicted upon my heart, however, must have already cost me a fortune.

Why is it not alright?

It’s not alright because it’s not all right; it has nothing to do with being stuffed to the nipples with methane. Whenever one embarks upon alright, one is truly searching for all right.

All right means that everything’s “all right,” as in it’s not at all left, as in it’s not at all evil, as in it’s all good. 

Whenever something’s all rightall acts as an adverb, describing the adjective (or nominative adjective) right, which, in this case, is intensifying the rightness. 

To wantonly use alright is not the sign of an understanding soul more accepting of newcomers, rather of poor discriminatory abilities. Surely, homophones can be a nuisance in English, but the fact that we cannot persuade that same homophone-sufferer that listening to audiobooks is not the same as reading should not be our problem to bear. 

Those at fault, however, are somewhat intelligently attempting to truncate the word into a word-pattern similar to those they’ve before seen. Perhaps top form here would be to provide a comparative list of distinctions, and, through this, describe what all right offenders believe to be doing. 

All readyAll serves as a pronoun that describes a group of people who, or things that, are prepared to begin, or ready. “We are all ready to sacrifice grandma.” 

Already: An adverb of time, already describes something that has happened before, or is presently underway with, something else: “We have (are) already sacrificed (ing) grandma.” 

All together: This describes how several things or people are currently oriented, or how something (or someone) is to be done, which is to say that everything or everyone is in one place or group, or that something (or someone) is to be done all at once: “Let’s put the Christmas trees all together, so that we can celebrate all together.”

Altogether: An adverb describing how something is to be done all in one place, or in a group, or otherwise all at once: “Why don’t we just throw the Christmas trees out altogether?” 

The same connective logic applies with a part: The indefinite article (a) and singular noun (part) describe one element that is not necessarily a part of a larger whole but could be: “A part of me believes that my toaster talks back to me, which could be a part of my problem.” A part cannot, although taken apart physically, cannot describe something that has been taken apart.

Apart unparted tempts those again with this tendency to confuse parted forms with the adverbial form, which, in this case, modifies “tear”: “You don’t want me in your house; I’ll tear that place apart.”

Any wayAny is a determiner; way is a noun. Witness and behold: “You could do the job in any way that you like, as long as you get it done.”

Anyway: “Forget it. You don’t have the correct tools, anyway.”

Some time: “I have some time on Friday to meet, if you would like.”

Sometime: “I would certainly like to meet sometime, but Friday does not work for me.”

Now consider the interesting case of a pace and apace.

A pace: A pace consists of an indefinite article (a) and a noun (pace): Select a pace on the treadmill that is right for you.”

Apace: An adverb that means to do something swiftly or quickly: “As I have only thirty minutes to complete five miles, I shall forsooth endeavor to move my legs apace.”

This pace case, although idiotically described, shows the vast area for misinterpretation of which the written word, if wielded incorrectly, is so easily capable, which is a nice segue into pure idiocy.

A lot—Allot—Alot 

A lot is used in English by all to bypass the Words of Number/Amount conundrum, as “a lot” can be used to refer to “a lot” of pencils on the desk, but also “a lot” of chocolate pudding spread all over the sidewalk. Allot is a verb that means to apportion or provide a certain amount of something to someone or another thing. 

Alot: not a word. 

This is all to say that there’s no way around it: Alright is an outright error, for alright is not a word; it attempts to supplant one word that already has its own logic with nothing. Alright attempts to slip the Trojan Horse in through the backdoor but doesn’t hold up. But enough of that talk. 

Fowler, Elster, and many other authorities on the English language hold firm that alright be either fashionable, barbarism, or something worse. The modern Fowler’s, fudged around with by Butterfield, suggests a compromise. Butterfield says that we should keep all right in its rightful place yet further asserts that alright could be used to distinguish from all as a pronoun, as in many of the above examples, as well as simply using alright for the adverbial form, much like we use already and altogether. He suggests two other reasons for a distinction to be made, but malarky smells worse whenever piled upon one another, I assume. 

Rest your Case

Most would concur that the English language possess but three cases: subjective, objective, and possessive. Though popular today, misinformation should be distrusted. In this case, folly reigns supreme as chief grammatical practice, and the progressive education model continues not only to dilate its pockets with the coin of the dunderheaded, but also relies on teachers of foreign languages to teach English case.

English, however, retains the Latin cases. 

Nominative: the naming case. Most readily known as the subjective case. The nominative case identifies the subject of a sentence (The soldier fainted during the ceremony) as well as any pronouns or adjectives in that sentence grammatically related to that same subject (The tall soldier, who fainted at the ceremony, he…). 

Vocative: the calling case. Though similar in appearance to the nominative, the vocative case, as Kingsley Amis writes in his style guide, The King’s English, is “used when addressing or invoking some person or abstraction.” Hamlet has the abstraction bit down: “Frailty, thy name is woman.” Or, for more everyday sort of talk: “It’s been nice talking with you, Jim.” Hamlet could have eased things up with a simple “women are frail” and “Jim” could have stopped with “you,” but that wouldn’t have called them out.

Accusative: the picking-out case. Here, the nouns and accompanied verbiage therein form what’s commonly understood as the direct object, the object of a sentence at which the subject aims with a transitive verb (King Henry VIII beheaded Sir Thomas Moore…Jane threw the ball).

Dative: the giving case. “Corresponding with to or for,” the dative expresses recipience. In “Jane threw Jack the ball,” Jack is in the dative case, as he is the recipient of this highly sought-after ball. This means the same thing as “Jane threw the ball to Jack,” except that “to Jack” is not in the dative, but rather a part of a prepositional phrase, which means that we’re now also sans indirect object.

Genitive, the ownership or source case, corresponding with of or from. Many will recognize the possessive’s apostrophe-s form: “the gods’/god’s ambrosia,” as stand-in for “the ambrosia of the gods/god.”

Ablative, the case that corresponds to source or cause. We often see this in the passive voice: “The pugilist’s insides were explored by his opponent.” Or, “The waltz came from Austria.” 

In addition to honest, stand-up instructional failure, English’s absence of inflection is likely partly to blame for the general notion of English’s contemporary existence as merely a tenuously linked series of case-less, primordial grunts.  

An inflection is a change in the form of a word to denote tense, mood, person, number, case, and/or gender. This is clearer in other languages such as German or French, whose word-endings alter to denote what English does invisibly. Declensions and conjugations are two examples, or in this case, case.

In the Mood

It has been indicated by highly qualified representatives with compelling signs on their front yards that we live in an age of Science. As I understand it, today’s Scientific Method, an evolved offspring of the Enlightenment Era’s model, is an empirical method of acquiring social ghost-knowledge, whose rigorous dogmas are roughly as follows: Conjure Issue, React Violently, Subvert Data, Hunt for Justification, and Terminate All Opposers. I have never claimed to be a member of the scientific community, but I should like perhaps to venture a contrary assertion.

Many English-speakers, much as the ultracrepidarian proposes to know any and all, are too willing to impose upon others the indicative mood, which suggests far too much certainty. Other languages have not deteriorated as far. Luckily a more scientific mood exists.

English’s subjunctive mood is a verbal form that, in main contrast to the indicative mood’s indication of certain information, denotes what is imagined, wished, asserted, exhorted, proposed, or otherwise expresses possibility or hypothesis. 

The subjunctive mood may be achieved in a few ways.

The use of be and were instead of the indicative forms, am/is/are/was:

Indicative mistake: If it is in the interest of the court, I’d like to sell my lawn mower to the witness.

Subjunctive: If it be in the interest of the court, I’d like to refuse the prosecutor’s offer. 

Indicative Mistake: If I was to accuse the witness of passing up a perfectly good lawn mower, would your honor find merit in it?

Subjunctive: If you were to accuse the witness at all, I would doubt your sense of honor in the main.

The absence of the final -s in the third-person singular tense:

Indicative Mistake: If Gordon’s doctor were again to refuse treatment, then I suggest he sees a medicine man. 

Subjunctive: If Gordon’s doctor were again to refuse treatment, then I suggest he see another medical professional.

The subjunctive form may also inhabit the following patterns:

After As If/ As Though. 

  • As if the possession of money were a kind of curse, he eschewed work altogether. 
  • Feeling as though he were the target of a workplace harassment, Jimmy began to air indiscriminately personal grievances at what was previously a dispassionate meeting about third-quarter federal tax reductions. 

After That-clauses (following a verb connoting suggestion)

  • This minor indiscretion suggests that Jimmy be either very stressed or very bad at interpreting metrics. 
  • He insisted that Natalia sit across from him.
  • That she were a Soviet Sleeper Agent was entirely unknown to him, but her legs were otherwise.

Be/Were at the head of a clause

  • Were I to get drunk this evening, I might find temporary satisfaction about my state with kings.
  • Be they Christian or otherwise, I shall still give them a proper good kicking.
  • I might have done a better job with the heart surgery, were I a qualified surgeon. 

And here are a few familiar, according to Fowler, “fossilized clauses” that express a wish, “whose realization depends on conditions beyond the power or control of the speaker”/writer. 

  • Be that as it may
  • So be it
  • Come what may
  • Far be it from me to
  • God forbid
  • God save the Queen
  • The powers that be
  • So be it

Suffice it to say that.

For further enquires as regards the subjunctive mood, you may contact my recently qualified representative, Tristan Farnon.

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.

Shakespeare’s German

I have yesterday both Shakespeare’s Hamlet and the German Language studied. And, in doing so, I have betwixt Shakespeare’s English and contemporary German a few similarities noticed. 

Perfect Tense Sentence Construction:

Your typical contemporary English sentence is constructed with its subject in the first position, its auxiliary/helping verb in the second position, and its past participial in the position thereafter.

Typical contemporary English: I have walked from city to city.

Typical contemporary German: Ich bin von Stadt zu Stadt gelaufen.

Not exactly bedfellows.

Notice, however, The Bard’s choice in sentence construction here:

“Hamlet, thou hast thy father much offended.”

 Hamlet, du hast deinen Vater sehr verärgert.

Not, Hamlet you have offended my father very much?

The Bard prefers here the Teutonic. Oh, heavy deed is right. And siehst you not this second-person singular conjugation of “hast?” Shakespearian English’s 2nd and 3rd-person singular and plural verb conjugations (of either present or past tense) of “to be,” “to have,” and “to do” whisper of contemporary German linage:

Shakespearian English (wast, hast/hath, dost, doth)

Contemporary German (warst, hast/hat, tust, tut)

Unlike modern English, which just uses “you” for both the 2nd-person singular and plural pronoun, Shakespearian English accounts for the second-person plural pronoun with “ye.” German also makes this distinction with Ihr/Sie (honorific).

And think you not, that I another distinction in the first example forgotten have. 

In contemporary English, we use “have/had” as the auxiliary/helping verb for nearly all perfect-tense constructions. But, in our first example, the German switches from the verb “to have (haben)” to “to be (sein).” This is because the German language marks sentences with intransitive main verbs with the auxiliary verb “to have” and transitive main verbs with the auxiliary verb “to be.” Shakespearian English prefers this as well:

Contemporary English: The actors have come.

Shakespearian English “The actors are come…” 

Contemporary German: Die Schauspieler sind (are) gekommen (come).

Contemporary English: My hour has almost come (this still sounds a trifle archaic and might most likely be spoken as “my hour is almost here”).

Shakespearian English: “My hour is almost come.”

Contemporary German: Meine Stunde ist (is) fast gekommen (come). 

And then there is the use of pronominal adverbs, which, in contemporary English, are but mostly unfairly fettered away upon the faded parchment of legalese. 

But they’re alive and well in both Shakespearian English and contemporary German.

A pronominal adverb is a kind of adverb that exists in Germanic languages. It is formed by turning a preposition and a pronoun into a prepositional adverb and a locative adverb and then connecting them in reverse order.

Contemporary preference: in that; in here. Pronominal adverbs: therein; herein.

Your friend would ask “Where…”

Your German friend would ask “Wohin…” (whereto [to where] or wither)

Hamlet asks: “Wither wilt thou lead me?”

Like, As if

Thanks to the inadequacy of schoolteachers across the English-speaking lands, most people today believe the words like and as to be synonymous. And to pick up where these part-time restaurant staff left off, your contemporary English-speaker further honors this simple way of life by heaving as off the boat altogether, preferring like for essentially all applications.

Contrary to popular scripture, however, like and as have discrete usages. To know the difference between these comparative words and employ these grammatical distinctions accordingly is to serve three main functions: to sharpen your logic, variegate your prose, and alienate yourself from friends.

The key distinction when comparing like and as is that like, in this case, is a preposition—an element of speech that defines the relationship between words—and as is a conjunction—an element of speech that connects words to other ones. 

Therefore, like may be used only in direct comparison to a noun (phrase).

Noun to noun: 

Angry, deformed, and horseless, he looked like King Richard III.

Notice that there is no verb after like. For direct noun comparisons using like, there is never a verb, not even implied, omitted verbs.

Noun-phrase to noun-phrase: 

His angry gait, deformed spirits, and horseless demeanor made him look like Richard III pottering about after a rough day out at Bosworth. 

In this noun-phrase to noun-phrase example, the verb “pottering” exists after Richard III, yet the comparison is still directly noun to noun: gait, spirts, demeanor to Richard III.

As, on the other hand, also connects and compares verbs. 

Angry, deformed, and horseless, he paced as King Richard III did at the Battle of Bosworth Field.

Here, we’re still talking about our angry, deformed, horseless man, but we’re including, or creating a conjunction for, these two verbs, “paced” and “did.”

The same rules apply for similes, which typically use likeasas if, or as though

For the kingliest examples of similes in their proper forms, consider none further than the similes of Sir P.G. Wodehouse.

“There was a sound in the background like a distant sheep coughing gently on a mountainside”

Here, the like form is correctly comparing the two nouns “sound” and “sheep,” or the noun phrases “Sound in the background” and “a distant sheep coughing gently on a mountainside.”

“She looked as if she had been poured into her clothes and had forgotten to say ‘when.’”

Used just like asas if creates a comparison that includes verbs, which, in this case, suggests the image of an open-minded woman who hadn’t been keeping her eye on the gravy boat.

A Complementary Article

Most sentences are perfectly happy with their subject/predicate relationships. But, sometimes, sentences, for a heavier meaning to push in, call for a little more cushion. 

Complement is a word or phrase added to a verb to complete the predicate of a sentence, thereby adding additional meaning. I shall begin with the least familiar.

An Adverbial Complement provides information as regards how a subject verbed something:

“She smiled at him in a Mona Lisa way.”

“They remained out of reach.”

“She spoke clearly.”

If you are thinking that an adverbial complement looks a dashed lot like an adverb or an adverbial phrase, then I think that you and I should generally get along. 

Adjectival Complements freshen things up a trifle. We now perceive the interesting subject/adjective comparison. 

“The job seemed nice and easy.”

“When the going gets tough…”

Here, we are saying something like nice and easy job or tough going, but the linking verbs (seemed and gets [the Old Norse intransitive for becomes] ) provide us with a kind of perception on the part of the subject.

An Object Compliment adds additional connotation to the object of the sentence.

“He called his brother a troglodyte.”

Here, the object complement, a troglodyte, succeeds in providing more information as regards this man’s less than well-thought-of brother. Object compliments require transitive verbs and can be nouns, pronouns, or adjectives. Comma distinctions are important, too, as a comma between “brother” and “a” would constitute this troglodyte as not a complement, rather an appositive.

If one’s inclined to ruin the fun, one may also consider direct objects and indirect objects as complements. This is hotly debated by salaried grammarians with stinkier breath than I, and, as such, I’ll leave it for them to chew over. 

But I shall save the dear reader some trouble. Indirect objects never come after “to” or “for.” For an indirect object to occur, “to” or “for” must be implied, not stated. If either of those words is stated, then you have a prepositional phrase, not an indirect object.

Now, for what is likely the most familiar: Subject Complement

There are two kinds of subject complements. 

The Predicate Adjective, which expounds upon the subject by way of adjective:

“The members of the slackline club are all unfortunate.”

“Woe is I.”

This inverted construction suggests the feeling of woe to be anthropomorphized by the subject, I. Most would write “woe is me,” which, as we shall know at the end of this article, is, by way of syntactic change, an example of an approved grammatical error.

Now for the most widely recognized Predicate Nominative:

“He died a lonely man.”

“That man over there is an animal.”

Perhaps he just shattered the gym’s bench-press record, perhaps he recently finished three rounds of sparring practice on his wife, or perhaps he’s in a room full of Darwinists. In any case, the man’s an animal. 

Now, for the interesting conundrum of subject complement concord.

Here is the arithmetic:

Singular Subject + Plural Complement OR Plural complement + Singular Subject= Verb agrees with subject.

“Hamlet is many people.” 

“These Shakespeare plays are typically a dust magnet nowadays.”

With collective nouns, verbs can be singular or plural, depending on whether the collective noun is acting as a group or as individuals.

“The platoon scrambles to new defensive positions.” 

“The platoon scramble to new defensive positions.”

And the relative pronoun what takes a singular verb.

“What I like about the countryside is…”

Pronominal Complements are a part of subject complements, but they deserve special attention due to their infamous nature.

English grammar requires that a subjective case subject match with a subjective case pronoun. However, false constructions such as “Yup, that’s me” or “Oh, it’s just him” are common fare and reign supreme over the correct oddities “Yup, that is I” or “Oh, it is just he.” 

Interestingly enough, however, the purist rules remain intact with phone greetings such as “Yes, this is he” and the case of before a relative pronoun “It was he who…” over “It was him who,” the latter of which would fall on listening ears as a barbarism.