PETER TRUDGILL on a grammar ‘rule’ ripe for debunking
There seem to be quite lot of self-appointed experts on the English language around who like to invent grammatical rules. One of these ‘rules’, which Americans in particular seem to be very worried about, concerns among and between, and states that writers should only use between to refer to two people or entities, and that for three or more the correct preposition to use is among.
This is complete nonsense; but if we are charitable and look into the history of these items a little bit more deeply, we can just about see where this misguided idea came from. The word between contains the element -tw-, which is historically related to two. In Old English, the feminine and neuter form of the numeral was twa. We no longer pronounce the w in the word two itself, although it is still retained in words for two in most of the languages which are closely related to English. In Scots, it is twa. The German word is zwei, Dutch and Afrikaans have twee, and in Frisian it is twa. The Swedes have två, in Icelandic it is tvö, and in Faroese tvey.
The original tw- also survives in English in related words such as twelve, which was originally ‘two left’ (i.e. if you subtract ten from twelve). Twenty means ‘two tens’ and twice is ‘two times’, while twins refers to two children born together. Twain, an archaic word which still survives in the phrases ‘never the twain shall meet’ and splitting something ‘in twain’, comes from the Old English masculine form twegen, ‘two’.
The word twine goes back to an Old English form meaning ‘double thread’, where the threads have been twisted – another related word – together. Twill was originally a type of cloth woven from such double thread. And a twig first meant a forked branch – one which had divided into two. Between (and its cousin betwixt) are derived from Old English forms related to the number two and preceded by be- (which was a reduced form of bi, modern by).
The word among, on the other hand, derives from medieval English on mang, from earlier on gemange, where gemang meant ‘a crowd’ or ‘an assembly of people’. The Old English verb gemengan meant ‘to combine, to mingle’. So the ming- part of mingle and the -mong part of among are historically related; and the original meaning of among was ‘in the company of’. It is not at all surprising, then, that in modern English among(st) and between mean different things, and are not just automatic variants which have to be used mechanically according to whether or not three or more entities are involved.
Consider the following sentence: ‘There are several differences between these four different population-groups.’ There is absolutely nothing wrong with this sentence. If, however, we were to listen to the coterie of self-appointed English grammar ‘experts’ who claim that this sentence is incorrect, and substitute among for between because there are more than two groups involved, we would utterly change the meaning of the sentence. Differences between groups and differences among groups obviously refer to very separate concepts – to intergroup and intragroup differences respectively.
It is normal in English to choose between entities, however many there are, and to see connections or relationships between people, regardless of the number. We also distinguish and differentiate between entities, even if there are three or more. So don’t worry – it is not and never has been wrong to use between for more than two objects or individuals. The Oxford English Dictionary has many examples of such usages going back to the 900s AD, including this one from 1400: ‘I shalle telle yow why in youre ears privily between us three.’
It is rather certain, I think, that no native speaker of English would ever think of saying ‘among you and me and the gatepost’.