A Word, Please: A rule that's just between us

Here's a sentence I used in a recent column: "Note the difference between a plural, a possessive and a plural possessive."

See anything funny about it? Two readers did. Both wrote to tell me that the word "between" should be "among." Thus, they said, I made a mistake.

Did I?

I've spent a lot of years researching word-choice issues. For most, my process goes like this: 1. Realize it's an issue. 2. Look it up. 3. Write about it. 4. Forget what I learned. 5. Repeat.

The "among" vs. "between" issue is different. I don't forget this one because it's attached to a rather awkward memory that years later still makes me cringe a little.

I was in an unfamiliar place in an inhospitable climate doing something that felt pretty unnatural: sitting down to dinner with more than one person. Weirder yet, these strange creatures who couldn't pronounce the word "park" and spoke of mysterious objects like "ice scrapers" and "Belichiks" were soon to become my family. Legal-like.

Scary, right?

It gets worse.

My mental resources already stretched to their limits by spinach-in-teeth-type worries, one of these folks, let's call her "M in L," shared with me one of her pet grammar peeves: confusion of "between" and "among." Then, for the others at the table, she restated the simple fact that "between" is for relationships of just two people or things. "Among" is for groups of three or more. Thus, a pie that is divided "between Joe and Sue" would be divided "among Joe, Sue and Bob."

The brief lecture was punctuated with an "Isn't that right, June?" as a dozen pairs of Guinness-lit eyeballs landed on me.

So I did what any survival-minded future family member would do: I stuffed my mouth full of oyster crackers and muttered something that sounded (as do all words spoken with a mouth full of oyster crackers) like "Mumford."

It was a close call. Had this incident occurred in any region that doesn't begin every meal with a chowder course, here's what I would have been forced to say: Um, no. That's not right.

The myth that "between" can't refer to more than two things is pretty ubiquitous. Strunk and White's "The Elements of Style" is a big part of the problem: The among-vs.-between distinction was one of William Strunk's instructions for his Cornell students handing in their papers. Strunk's classroom rule landed in the book and thus, to this day, is mistaken for a real grammar rule.

The Associated Press Stylebook also says to observe the distinction. And anyone who doesn't fully understand the role of a stylebook could mistake the guideline for a grammar rule.

It's not.

"There is a persistent but unfounded notion that 'between' can be used only of two items and that 'among' must be used for more than two," writes Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary. "'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 (economic cooperation between nations), when more than two are enumerated (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) (pausing between every sentence to rap the floor.)"

Other authorities, including "Garner's Modern American Usage" and "Fowler's Modern English Usage" agree.

So you're welcome to use "between" as a synonym for "among" if you like. But, dear column readers, let's just keep this between us.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is author of "It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences." She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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