LawProse Lesson #97: “Between” vs. “among”

Is it ever proper to use between when expressing a relation with more than two things? ANSWER: Yes. Good writers commonly use between when referring to more than two things that have reciprocal relations. It’s a common superstition that you should never use between when talking about more than two elements. Generally, between does apply to two, but as Theodore M. Bernstein explained in Dos, Don’ts & Maybes of English Usage, “sometimes the ‘two’ relationship is present when more than two elements are involved. For example, it would be proper to say that ‘The President was trying to start negotiations between Israel, Egypt, Syria, and Jordan’ if what was contemplated was not a round-table conference but separate talks involving Israel and each of the other three nations.” Wilson Follett urged that we should be skeptical of the “standard oversimplification” that between can only be used with two entities while among must be used with three or more: “Between is not merely allowable, it is required when we want to express the relations of three or more taken one pair at a time.” The true distinction here is that between expresses one-to-one relations (of any number of things), while among expresses collective and undefined relations. So when the sense is not reciprocal or mutual, and there is no one-to-one relationship, among is the proper choice <The corporation’s CEO discussed the financial relationships among the 12 subsidiaries>. The oversimplified rule holds true when you are dividing: you divide between two things, but divide among more than two <divide the tasks between the two managers> <divide the candy among the 15 children>. But as the Oxford English Dictionary notes, “the space between three points” denotes the interior of a clean triangle; “the space among three points” is a messier depiction without straight lines. Sources: Garner’s Modern American Usage 101-02, 788 (3d ed. 2009). Theodore M. Bernstein, The Careful Writer 72-73 (1965). Theodore M. Bernstein, Dos, Don’ts & Maybes of English Usage 29 (1977). Wilson Follett, Modern American Usage 89 (1966). H.W. Fowler, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage 57 (Ernest Gowers ed., 2d ed. 1965).

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