Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Between You, Me and the Gatepost...

Conventional wisdom has it that the preposition 'between' is used when talking about a relationship involving two things or people; and 'among' when more than two are involved. Although some people try to follow this advice all the time, general usage doesn't always obey this rule. The idiomatic expression 'Between you, me and the gatepost' (meaning that something is meant to be strictly secret)  may be the best example to the contrary.

There's no question that 'between' is the term to go for when only two objects (or persons) are being mentioned. The trouble starts if more than two come into play. Usage clearly shows that 'between' is sometimes taken in this latter case too. But are they interchangeable then?

Not really. Even when three or more are involved, 'between' seems to be the preferred option if those involved are being considered separate entities having individual relationships with one another; on the other hand, if they're seen as part of one group, 'among' is usually taken.

The children ran among the trees in the park. (They ran in the space surrounded by trees, but the running didn't have any direct or individual relationship with the trees.)

The children ran between the trees in the park. (They ran from tree to tree, as in some games where one child is supposed to catch others while they're running from one tree to another.) 

We divided the food among the six of us. (All are seen as part of a group and there's no need to consider an individual exchange between any two of them.) 

The differences between English, Chinese and Swahili are enormous. (The three languages, belonging to three separate language families, are being compared to one another; the differences between each two play a role.)

Some other instances where 'between' occurs with more than two items are:

The area between the post office, the railway station and the supermarket is always crowded.

Luxembourg is located between France, Belgium, and Germany.

The matches between Sri Lanka, India and Pakistan start tomorrow. 

Talks between the US, China and India have concluded.

(Image credit: thienzieyung)

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