Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Among the Betweens

Q. It drives me crazy to hear supposedly educated people misuse among and between. I actually heard a politician say, "Between Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan, this country has its hands full." English 101, folks: between for two, among for three or more!

A. I learned the very same thing, and my teachers were rather merciless when it came to careless choice. I think it's a distinction that offers a clear and unmistakable message in many cases, but there's no doubt that this is a rule in transition.

And here's the other side of the coin, something we were never taught: that rule always was an over-simplification to make things easier on students.

The reality, as The Oxford English Dictionary reveals, is that "in all its senses, between has been, from its earliest appearance, extended to more than two." The OED goes on to say that "[between] is still the only word available to express the relation of a thing to many surrounding things severally and individually, among expressing a relation to them collectively and vaguely…"

Even though the following examples follow the inflexible 2/3 schoolhouse rule, OED calls them erroneous:
  • the space lying among the three points;
  • a treaty among three powers;
  • the choice lies among the three candidates;
  • to insert a needle among the closed petals of a flower.
Substitute between instead, we are told.

So I think you may want to lighten up, unless simplistic rules act as a necessary coping mechanism for you. I know it's difficult to believe, but some of the rules that English teachers hammered into our heads were nothing short of grammar superstitions invented in the 18th century by people who thought that English was too unruly.

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