Among the Between: Notes from the Preposition War Trenches

Recently I was working on a manuscript in which the author had written a sentence that gave me pause. It contained the word “between” in a use that is less common than what most of us are used to reading, but many of us say when speaking. As an inveterate verbarian, my mind reads words that could just as easily be replaced by another word, as is often the case with prepositions, and does an automatic compare and contrast to see if the usage in the instance involved is correct. NOTE: This is more commonly referred to as overthinking it, and those of you who are also guilty of this habit know just how excruciating it is. (Like when you look at a word for long enough that it suddenly doesn’t even look like a word anymore, much less one in your own language, and then you’re hit with a case of the cold sweats wondering how many times in your life you’ve used this impostor word in polite company and sounded like a complete moron, then you take a quick drink of something adult and spirited and finally calm down.)

Because in this case I was unable to convince myself whether “among” or “between” was the correct preposition, I decided to consult the two main water coolers for professionals in this area: The Chicago Manual of Style and the Editorial Freelancers Association forums. The ensuing conversations surprised even me and showed one very important thing: language is always in a fluid state; take any dogmatic adherence to any rule, and within a few years to a couple of centuries, it will have become as quaint and dated as your grandmother’s View-Master Stereoscope.Toronto_view-master

Read on to see how even the most proficient and specialized minds can still disagree on some of English’s particularities.

Me. Hi All,

Having a hard time wrapping my brain around the proper preposition for this sentence and wondering if someone can help me figure it out. The offending word here is “between,” which part of my brain believes should be “among.” What do you think?

The author writes: Between the three of them they were able to haul up half of the rope before she swung back.

Many thanks!
Tammy

Editorial Freelancers Forum:

Response 1. It should be “among”. It’s my understanding that “between” is used only if there are two people (or things) involved. So it would be “between the two of them”, but “among the three of them”.

Response 2. Seems to me that should be “among” too.

Response 3. I’d just say, “The three of them were able …”

Response 4. “Among” seems more suitable to me in this case, as Responder 1 and Responder 2 mentioned. Here’s what CMS 16 says about the words:

between; among; amid. Between indicates one-to-one relationships {between you and me}. Among
indicates undefined or collective relationships {honor among thieves}. Between has long been
recognized as being perfectly appropriate for more than two objects if multiple one-to-one
relationships are understood from the context {trade between members of the European Union}.
Amid is used with mass nouns {amid talk of war}, among with plurals of count nouns {among
the children}. Avoid amidst and amongst.

Response 5. I agree that “among” is appropriate unless any two of the three worked together alternately to haul up half of the rope. Absent any further explanation that might follow, I would definitely change “between” to “among.”

Me. Doh! Silly me! It’s right here in black and white. M-W:

be·tween preposition \bi-ˈtwēn, bē-\
1 a : by the common action of : jointly engaging <shared the work between the two of them> <talks between the three —Time>
b : in common to : shared by <divided between his four grandchildren>

Response 7. One more reason to keep more than one dictionary around. The standard set all take turns falling short it seems to me. I was stunned by M-W on this one, though I am stunned by M-W more often than should be the case, so I checked Oxford. Turns out that Oxford agrees with CMOS here. As for leaving out the word, there is a subtle difference in meaning. But it’s hard to offer a view about that without context. Oxford (OAD, which is varies from the OED only for some spellings and Americanisms) offers this:

usage: 1 Between is used in speaking of two things, people, etc.: we must choose between two equally unattractive alternatives. Among is used for collective and undefined relations of usually three or more: agreement on landscaping was reached among all the neighbors. But where there are more than two parties involved, between may be used to express one-to-one relationships of pairs within the group or the sense ‘shared by’: there is close friendship between the members of the club; diplomatic relations between the US, Canada, and Mexico. 2 Between you and I, between you and he, etc., are incorrect; between should be followed only by the objective case: between you and me, between you and him, etc. See also usage at personal pronoun.

Response 8. Among.

Response 9. Between.

Response 10. Web 11 gives as its first definition of ‘between’: ‘by the common action of: jointly engaging <shared the work between the two of them> <talks between the three>

CMS 16 has this: between; among; amid. Between indicates one-to-one relationships {between you and me}. Among indicates undefined or collective relationships {honor among thieves}. Between has long been recognized as being perfectly appropriate for more than two objects if multiple one-to-one relationships are understood from the context {trade between members of the European Union}. Amid is used with mass nouns {amid talk of war}, among with plurals of count nouns {among the children}.

I’d stay with ‘between,’ Tammy.

Chicago Forum

Response 1. “Between” does not seem to fit. “Among” is for more than two persons when you’re talking about the joint action of the group, as opposed to multiple two-person relationships within a group. So yes, I agree that “among” works better here.

Response 2. The meaning in Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary is not the typical application of “between,” nor do I think can it be expressed by “among.” And we have 5 members to the combination here :-)
between: prep.
6 : taking together the total effect of (a series of things) <between making beds, washing dishes, sewing, cleaning, and raising her children, she was kept busy>

Another angle. In published books at Google Books a carefully crafted search :-) gives:

“between the three of them they managed”
About 856 results <—– hugely in majority

“among the three of them they managed”
About 42 results

which to me shows that when a group manages to do something by combined efforts, “between” is the correct one.

And the OP had “were able to,” very similar to “managed.”

Response 3. In the online MW dictionary I found this meaning under “among”:

a : through the reciprocal acts of <quarrel among themselves>
b : through the joint action of <made a fortune among themselves>

6b to me is the very meaning that is meant by the sentence in the original post.

Response 4. Chiming in late, but here’s what CMOS 5.220 says on the matter:

between; among; amid. Between indicates one-to-one relationships {between you and me}. Among indicates undefined or collective relationships {honor among thieves}. Between has long been recognized as being perfectly appropriate for more than two objects if multiple one-to-one relationships are understood from the context {trade between members of the European Union}. Amid is used with mass nouns {amid talk of war}, among with plurals of count nouns {among the children}.

As you can see from the above, “among” is the word of choice for your example sentence.

Me. Oh boy! Lively discussion. Thanks again for everyone chiming in.

Merriam Webster online has as the first definition for “between”:
a : by the common action of : jointly engaging <shared the work between the two of them> <talks between the three — Time>
b : in common to : shared by <divided between his four grandchildren>

The way I read this, my original example—”Between the three of them they were able to haul up half of the rope before she swung back.”—is actually correct grammar. They are sharing a the task of hauling a rope between two or more people. It is a common action, jointly engaged, and shared by the subject: three people. If you reframed the sentence to make it more specific, it would read: “Between the efforts made by John, Jill, and Jorge, the rope was capable of being hauled.” If you wrote, “Among the efforts made by John, Jill, and Jorge, the rope was capable of being hauled” the sentence wouldn’t make any sense.

What does everyone else think?

Response 5. I think if you stare at the sentence long enough, neither word looks like it makes any sense. I’ve read the explanation in CMOS and the definition in MW, and if you ask me which of the two words is more “correct” I would say “among.” If you ask me what I would say, I’d probably just recast the sentence entirely.

“With all three of them pulling, they were able to…”

Response 6. Hmm. Well, you make a good point for using “between” in this fashion. It’s interesting that M-W and CMOS disagree on this somewhat (or at least they appear to). Hahaha! I have to agree with you that if you stare at it long enough, neither makes sense. English is so wonky.

The lesson here, dear readers, is that anytime you’re slaving away at the keyboard and beating your head against some word or grammar question that you just know you’re doing wrong, don’t feel bad about it. Sometime, somewhere, a group of people who are supposed to know all this stuff inside and out is flogging the same question to death and as likely as not is coming up with more than one possible correct option. The second big takeaway is: when in doubt, reword.

Image by Sally from Toronto, Canada [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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All content copyright unless otherwise specified © 2013 by Tammy Salyer, writer. All rights reserved. Permission is granted to use short quotes provided proper attribution is given.
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One comment

  1. Blimey. All of this over one word.

    I agree with what everybody says about the rules (assumed or not) of the English language, but for me ‘between the three of them’ has a much more real-sounding ring to it than ‘among the three of them’. I guess another deciding factor on which word fits the best would be the style the author has adopted. For example, if they write like me – in a style my dad keeps referring to as ‘conversational’ – then ‘between’ fits whereas ‘among’ sounds a little stiff and forced.

    Interesting post, thanks.

    Like

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