Saturday, May 22, 2010

My hunch was right about the usage of “between” and “among”

Are you sure that you have been correctly using the prepositions “between” and “among” in your sentence constructions all these years? If you can’t say for sure, then you’re not alone in your predicament. I was in the same situation once. Until my college days, in fact, I used to be totally confident in my choice between “between” and “among,” the following rule having been efficiently drilled into my head by my English grammar teachers: “Use ‘between’ for two, and use ‘among’ for more than two.”

But as I recounted in an essay I wrote several years ago for my English-usage column in The Manila Times, there finally came a time when I began to have my doubts. I wrote: “Using ‘between’ rarely gave me problems, but there were far too many situations when using ‘among’ for threesomes or more simply didn’t seem right. Sentences like the following particularly baffled me: ‘The chiffon cake was divided among Ana, Gloria, and Julia.’ ‘The stewardess had mud among her fingers.’ ‘The rich matron must have dropped her wallet somewhere among the supermarket, the street, and the parking lot.’ In all three cases, ‘among’ seemed to me a grammatical misfit and ‘between’ a more natural choice.” (Give Your English the Winning Edge, chapter 111, page 314) As it turned out, my hunch was correct.

In “Clarifying the use of ‘between’ and ‘among’,” a later essay that I have posted in this week’s edition of the Forum, I revisited this thorny aspect of English grammar after encountering what I thought was the mistaken use of “among” for “between” even by a professional linguist. As companion reading for this essay, I have provided a link to another essay on the same subject, “A recurrent misuse of ‘between’,” that I posted in the Forum last year. I hope that together, these two essays will give you much greater confidence in your usage choices between “between” and “among.”

[For inside the Forum]

Clarifying the use of “between” and “among”

The other day, I was reading The Atoms of Language: The Mind’s Hidden Rules of Grammar by Mark Baker, a linguistics professor at Rutgers University in the United States, when I came across this passage in his preface to the book: “Mohawk . . . is quite a different thing from Japanese or English or Welsh or Swahili or Navajo or Warlpiri or Hixkaryana. Nevertheless, linguists are discovering that the differences among [italics mine] these languages are created by a small number of discrete factors, called parameters.”

What struck me as rather odd—if not outright mistaken—is the author’s usage of the preposition “among” instead of “between” to relate the eight languages enumerated in the preceding sentence as part of a collectivity with certain differences. Over the years, on the authority of both the Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam-Webster’s 11th Collegiate Dictionary, I have always believed that the correct usage should be “between” when denoting a one-to-one relationship regardless of the number of items, in which case the sentence should read as follows: “Nevertheless, linguists are discovering that the differences between these languages are created by a small number of discrete factors, called parameters.”

Evidently, however, Prof. Baker subscribes to the popular notion that “between” should be limited to denoting a relationship involving only two entities, and that “among” should be used when there are more than two such entities. But as many an English user has wondered, is this grammar prescription really applicable in all cases?

When the relationship involves only two entities, of course, the only choice is “between,” as in these two sentences: “This arrangement is just between you and me.” “The meeting was meant to encourage discussion between the two warring clans.” But when more than two entities are involved, the choice between “between” and “among” gets fuzzy. When there are three warring clans, for instance, do we say, “The meeting was meant to encourage discussion between the warring Lopez, Marquez, and Enriquez clans” or “The meeting was meant to encourage discussion among the warring Lopez, Marquez, and Enriquez clans”?

According to Kenneth Wilson of The Columbia Guide to Standard American English, “between” can be used for as many items as desired if the relationship is one-to-one, as in the following sentence: “Trade relations between [not “among”] the United States, the Middle East, and China are bound to change due to the ongoing global economic crisis.” This usage prescription looks reasonable and logical to me, so I would suggest that the “between”-using version of the sentence about the three warring clans in the preceding paragraph is the correct one: “The meeting was meant to encourage discussion between the warring Lopez, Marquez, and Enriquez clans.”

My point in making this choice is to help people get rid of the profound tendency to limit the use of “between” to relationships involving only two entities and to use “among” for all relationships involving more than two entities. As Merriam-Webster’s 11th Collegiate Dictionary notes, “‘Between’ has been used of more than two since Old English; it is especially appropriate to denote a one-to-one relationship, regardless of the number of items. It can be used when the number is unspecified, as in “economic cooperation between nations,” and when more than two are enumerated, as in between you and me and the lamppost”; “partitioned between Austria, Prussia, and Russia”—Nathaniel Benchley; and even when only one item is mentioned (but repetition is implied), as in “pausing between every sentence to rap the floor”—George Eliot.

“‘Among’ is more appropriate where the emphasis is on distribution rather than individual relationships, as in “discontent among the peasants.” When ‘among’ is automatically chosen for more than two, English idiom may be strained, as in “a worthy book that nevertheless falls among many stools”—John Simon; “the author alternates among modern slang, clichés and quotes from literary giants”—A. H. Johnston.

I hope that this clarifies the usage of “between” and “among” once and for all. (November 29, 2008)

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, November 29, 2008 issue © 2008 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.


Setting the limits of a range wrongly

There’s actually more to the problem than meets the eye in the frequent misuse of the preposition “between” in the sense of setting the limits or endpoints of a range, as in the sentences “Plain chocolate contains between 30 percent to 70 percent cocoa solids.” “Each shop can carry between 1,000 to 1,800 items.”

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