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Between versus among

Q From Lynne Baker, Dave Olander and others: In your discussion of Ivy League colleges you referred to a competition “between the universities of Harvard, Yale, Columbia and Princeton”. I think the correct usage is between two people or entities and among when three or more are mentioned. Am I right or wrong?

A William Safire commented in the New York Times in 1999 that three style guides — those of his own newspaper, the Associated Press and The Wall Street Journal — all “stand foursquare for the between/among rule” that you cite. He commented that the AP guide included the maxim that “between introduces two items and among more than two”, arguing that as a result it was correct to write “between you and me” but “among the three of us’”.

This is still a matter that’s capable of arousing controversy in the US. John McIntyre, an editor with the Baltimore Sun, was criticised for saying in a radio broadcast on National Grammar Day in March 2008 that between could be used for more than two. He wrote in the paper later that month that he had come across a passage in Robert Dallek’s Nixon and Kissinger that made his point: “Between February 25 and March 4, Kissinger resumed his shuttle diplomacy, traveling between Damascus, Tel Aviv, Cairo, Amman, Riyadh, and Bonn, before his return to the United States.” Mr McIntyre comments, “He did not travel among those six cities; he traveled between one and another seriatim.”

Most US style guides agree with Mr McIntyre that between can be used for more than two. British guides say the same, following the statement by James Murray in the Oxford English Dictionary more than a century ago: “Between has been, from its earliest appearance, extended to more than two”, with his earliest example being from the year 971. Noah Webster made the same point in his dictionary in 1828; Sir Ernest Gowers called the rule a superstition in the Second Edition of Fowler in 1965. It seems to have grown out of a view by grammarians of the eighteenth century that was falsely based on etymology, since the second part of between is from a Germanic source that’s related to twain and two. This led Dr Johnson to assert the rule as you have given it in his own dictionary in 1755, although he added, “but perhaps this accuracy is not always observed”.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage says that, “the enormous amount of ink spilled in the explication of the subtleties of between and among has been largely a waste; it is difficult for a native speaker of English who is not distracted by irrelevant considerations to misuse the two words” and ends “you are going to be better off following your own instincts than trying to follow somebody else’s theory of what is correct”, a statement that may equally apply to this article.

The one part that’s correct is that you must use between if only two things are in consideration: “he stood among two people” feels obviously wrong. But to put the complete rule into words isn’t easy. James Murray said that between expresses the relation of things to surrounding things regarded separately and individually but among expresses it to them only collectively and vaguely. A modern guide says that between is right when the relationships among the members of the group are essentially reciprocal or mutual, while among suggests there is no close relationship.

I leave the last word with subscriber Malcolm Ross-Macdonald: “I was cured of this shibboleth when I was challenged to use ‘among’ instead of ‘between’ in the sentence, ‘He lived in that ill-defined triangle between East Town, West Town, and South Town.’”

Page created 29 Mar. 2008

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Last modified: 29 March 2008.