The difference between two and three

rogersgeorge on December 4th, 2011

Grammar has a specialized term, number. To English and many other language speakers, this means singular or plural. Some languages, such as classical Greek, have another number, called dual, meaning exactly two. We have some vestiges of this in English with words that mean exactly two, such as “pair,” “both,” the poetry term “couplet,” and sometimes the vernacular “couple.” I remember in sixth grade a friend telling me that Sharon and I made a nice couple. (The trouble was I liked Sandy better.)

We also make this distinction between dual and plural when we use “between” and “among,” and that’s today’s topic.

Use “between” when you are referring to two things and “among” with more than two. Here’s a good example of “among” being used correctly on purpose (I hope) in a context where “between” would, at first glance, look correct and mean something rather different. This quote is from the December 2011 issue of Blue Water Sailing, a magazine about sailboat cruising where the closest land is straight down.

As we sail into the holiday season, we begin to think about the gift giving that goes on among families and friends. We sailors are easy, since we are always happy to receive anything to do with our boats. A simple rigging knife is as welcome as a full foul weather suit.

This is a deluxe rigging knife, but you get the idea

Two items, right? Therefore the writer should have used “between,” right? As the song goes, ’tain’t necessarily so. “Between” works, and it means a single group of families gives gifts to a single group of friends. How often would that happen? Using “among,” however, fixes this unlikely situation, allowing multiple individual families and multiple individual friends to give gifts in any combination. We have here a good use of the correct word to convey a subtle difference in meaning.

Here’s a word puzzle that plays on this same concept:

It’s a misunderstanding between friends, yuk yuk. Two friends, therefore “between.” If the picture had had the word “friends” more times, it would be a misunderstanding among friends.

I can’t resist making a curmudgeonly suggestion about the passage quoted above. The second sentence violates the second rule of good writing.  The first time you read the sentence, what did you think when you came to the word “easy”? Did it cross your mind that sailors are easy? As you continue through the sentence you figure out that the writer could not have intended this lowbrow and somewhat salacious meaning. Depending on how familiar you are with the meaning of “easy” by itself, meaning loose sexual standards, you got a jolt as you figured out that the writer really meant. Perhaps the sentence should have read “We sailors are easy to give gifts to…”

If you don’t know, ask in the comments or by email and I’ll tell you what the second rule is.

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