Reading Between the Lines

By Rob Kyff

September 25, 2019 3 min read

Bing Crosby once crooned in a classic song, "You've got to accentuate the positive/ Eliminate the negative/ Latch on to the affirmative/ Don't mess with Mister In-Between."

He sure got that last part right. Perhaps no preposition causes more problems than "between" does.

Let's start with the classic rivalry between "Between" and his brother "Among." The standard maxim is that "between" should be used when referring to two items ("The inheritance was divided between the two brothers") and "among" when referring to more than two items ("The inheritance was divided among the five brothers").

But it's not always that simple. The Oxford English Dictionary explains some of the subtleties this way: "Between" expresses one-on-one relations of many things, and "among" expresses collective and undefined relations.

Thus, "fighting broke out between the four nations," suggests they've squared off against each other in one-on-one matchups, while "fighting broke out among the four nations" suggests free-for-all, indiscriminate fighting.

Similarly, "Juanita is choosing between jobs in New York, Denver and Seattle" suggests she's been offered one job in each city, while "Juanita is choosing among jobs in New York, Denver and Seattle" suggests she's been offered multiple jobs in each location.

And sometimes "between" is simply the more natural-sounding choice, even when many items are referenced. Thus, we'd say, "The six hitchhikers don't have a dime between them," or "The alley runs between several houses," or "He had to find the right balance between work, play, family and friends." "Among" would sound awkward in each sentence.

Other problems involving "between" include:

— Using "between you and I" instead of "between you and me." This mistake is often attributed to what linguists call "hypercorrection." In this case, because we were presumably corrected as children for using "you and me" in the nominative case ("You and me can go to the store"), we're afraid to use "you and me" when it's correct in the objective case.

— Using "and" with a range of numbers: "We expect between 10 and 12 people" technically means you expect 11 people. To indicate the intended range, use "from" instead, e.g., "We expect from 10 to 12 people."

— Using the illogical phrase "between each," as in, "Bing always rested between each recording session." Instead, write, "Bing always rested between recording sessions" — and presumably never messed with Mr. In-Between.

Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to [email protected] or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

Photo credit: libellule789 at Pixabay

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