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I apologize for not posting much recently, but I’ve been bogged down with being a grad student — submitting a paper, setting up a self-paced reading study, and moving apartments. But in the course of compiling that paper, I skimmed through an article with the following title:

(1) Establishing relationships among patterns in stock market data

(Emphasis mine.) That set off my “weird usage” alarms and — BAM! — the grammatical fire was back! (1) isn’t exactly ungrammatical, but it is an incorrection, a usage dictated by a misguided rule. The rule, of course, is that between can only be used with two entities and no more; if three or more items are being discussed, among is said to be the only acceptable choice. This, I assume, is the reason that the authors shied away from the title that I (and probably many of you) would have used:

(1′) Establishing relationships between patterns in stock market data

Now, why would I use between over among here? It’s not just to be contrary, but rather because among is, in actual English usage, used to express a weaker, vaguer, more nebulous connection between items than between. The Oxford English Dictionary summarizes the distinction crisply:

“[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”.

So return to the above title (1), the whole point of the paper is that there are distinctive specific relationships between stocks that a good machine learning algorithm can pick up on, rather than some general tendency or imprecise relationships across them. Thus between is more natural (to me). Further evidence of the vague/specific distinction comes from examples like these, where I distinctly prefer one over the other, depending on the collectivity and nebulousness of the relationship:

(2a) The “Duck Hunt” dog had hidden among (?between) the reeds.
(2b) Luxembourg is located between (?among) France, Belgium, and Germany.
(2c) The gangster divided the loot equally between (?among) his cronies.
(2d) His cronies then distributed it among (?between) themselves.

So how did that junk rule about between being restricted to two entities come about? I usually see it justified by an appeal to etymology. The OED notes that between comes from Old English bi saem twéonum, which literally meant “by seas twain”. This “by twain” began to be used in other constructions where bi and twéonum were placed together, and over time the two words coalesced into one. Since etymology is destiny, and right there in its original form 1000 years ago is twain, prescriptivists argue that between is illogical when more than two things are being discussed. For instance, check out this bit from James Brown’s Third Book of the Rational System of English Grammar (1856):

In this use of between, there is a perfect disregard to the dual import which this preposition derives from its parent word, twain. If we can say between twenty men, what is the difference between among, and between?”

Of course this is bunk. First, despite what Wittgenstein said, etymology is not destiny*. The fact that as recently as 1870, awful could be used to mean “impressive, awesome” does not mean that it must retain that meaning in contemporary English.

Second, if the rule really were justified by etymology, wouldn’t we expect that there was a point in the past where people really did just use between when two things were talked about? Well, the OED points out that “In all senses, between has been, from its earliest appearance, extended to more than two.” And by “from its earliest appearance”, the OED is talking about 971. For more than a millennium, between has been being used with more than two items. If the word’s etymology didn’t bother people back when the word was fresh, why should we start to be bothered by it now?

Third, the very prescriptivists who insist between is wrong with more than two entities use between with more than two entities. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage gives examples of this for Samuel Johnson (he of the first dictionary) and Frank Vizetelly.

But lastly, and really the only argument that needs to be made against it, is that the only-two rule requires you to say things that are obviously not standard English. The OED gives a few examples of this, including:

(3a) *the space lying among the three points
(3b) *to insert a needle among the closed petals of a flower

I’ve taken the liberty of marking these as ungrammatical. (3a) is the clincher for me; I did math as an undergrad, and if I’d defined the interior of the triangle ABC as the area among the three line segments AB, BC, and CA, people would have wondered if perhaps my mind had gone a trifle John-Nash-in-A-Beautiful-Mind on me. But the area between those three line segments is well-defined; it’s the way sane ol’ Colin MacLaurin would have said it. Here we see the specific/vague tendency come into play; it’s hard to have a more specific relationship than “mathematically enclosing” in (3a) or a more concrete relationship than “physically abutting, sticking through” in (3b). Among just doesn’t have the fortitude to fit with such strict individual relationships, even though there’re more than two items in play.

Summary: The rule that between can only be used with two items, and among for more than two, is specious. The real tendency of English is for between when the connections are conceptualized as being between individuals, and among when the connections are more vague and collective.

*: The aphorism is true in its weak sense; words have no inherent meaning, so of course the meaning of a word is whatever is history has led to it being recognized as denoting. For instance, dog would never mean dog if it hadn’t been for people agreeing to use it as such at some point in the past and for its continued usage with this meaning. The trouble is that this point is used far more often in the strong (incorrect) sense than the weak (correct) one.

**: If you want to read more on this issue, I’d advise checking out the tremendous entry at the MWDEU on between and among.

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A lot of people make claims about what "good English" is. Much of what they say is flim-flam, and this blog aims to set the record straight. Its goal is to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn't. Somehow, this was enough to garner a favorable mention in the Wall Street Journal.

About Me

I'm Gabe Doyle, currently a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. Before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

In my research, I look at how humans manage one of their greatest learning achievements: the acquisition of language. I build computational models of how people can learn language with cognitively-general processes and as few presuppositions as possible. Currently, I'm working on models for acquiring phonology and other constraint-based aspects of cognition.

I also examine how we can use large electronic resources, such as Twitter, to learn about how we speak to each other. Some of my recent work uses Twitter to map dialect regions in the United States.

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