Sunday 22 November 2009

On between each

A correspondent asks for my views about such sentences as There will be an intermission between each act. Is it acceptable?

Well, not according to Fowler, for example, who adopted a very strict line about the usage of between: 'it must not be followed by a single expression in which a distributive such as each or every is supposed to represent a plural'. Similarly, between was not supposed to be used for more than two entities (among being recommended instead).

All this despite the fact that, from the very earliest recorded uses of between, we find it used in situations where more than two entities are involved. As the OED puts it, in a useful note (between V.19):

It is still the only word available to express the relation of a thing to many surrounding things severally and individually, among expressing a relation to them collectively and vaguely: we should not say ‘the space lying among the three points,’ or ‘a treaty among three powers,’ or ‘the choice lies among the three candidates in the select list,’ or ‘to insert a needle among the closed petals of a flower.’

However, over the past 250 years or so, prescriptive grammarians have privileged the etymology of the word (tween - 'two'), though often failing to live up to their own prescriptions. Dr Johnson was especially influential, when he wrote in his Dictionary:

Between is properly used of two, and among of more ...

However, he adds:

... but perhaps this accuracy is not always preserved.

And indeed it isn't. Boswell records Johnson himself as saying:

I ... hope, that, between publick business, improving studies, and domestick pleasures, neither melancholy nor caprice will find any place for entrance.

Between each has a similar history. Prescriptive grammarians would insist on my correspondent's sentence being rewritten as something like There will be an intermission after each act - ignoring the problem that there is no intermission after the last act. Fowler would have suggested a change to ...between each act and the rest, which is momentarily confusing. There really is no easy alternative - which is presumably why the between each usage is frequently found in literature over the centuries. Here's an early example from The Passionate Pilgrim, a text from Shakespeare's time:

Between each kiss her oaths of true love swearing...

Gowers (in his Plain Words) called the fuss over between each 'pedantry', and advises us to 'ignore' those who insist on restricting between to its etymological meaning. I agree.


Ismael Tohari said...

"I ... hope, that, between publick business, improving studies, and domestick pleasures,..."

I wonder why "publick and domestick were written with an additional letter i.e."k" at the end.

Barrie England said...

Those who are offended by ‘intermission between each act’ could perhaps write ‘intermissions between the acts’, even if it allows the possibility, however unlikely, of there being more than one intermission at a time.

DC said...

-ck was the normal spelling in Johnson's time. Indeed, he states at one point that no word in English should ever end with a -c. In this respect, subsequent usage proved him wrong.

ismael Tohari said...

Thanks a lot.

-ck was the normal spelling in Johnson's time. Indeed, he states at one point that no word in English should ever end with a -c. In this respect, subsequent usage proved him wrong.

I wonder why he states so. What was the problem with ending a word with -c?

Brian S said...

'proved him wrong' seems a little harsh on Johnson to me. He was talking about the English of his time, and we're looking at the English of ours. It's a general pattern in current English spelling that 'q' has to be followed by 'u', and this is a useful rule to teach to schoolchildren, that doesn't necessarily mean in two centuries time it will still be the case.

Do you think that the fact that language alters with time means that we shouldn't be prescriptive about spelling, or do you just think that Johnson went too far with a generalisation? Or am I reading too much into an off the cuff comment?

DC said...

What he actually said was: 'The English never use c at the end of a word.' (You'll find this in the opening entry under letter K in his Dictionary.) That seems a pretty strong generalization to me.

Why did he say it? Presumably because he was aware that many words were being spelled with a final -c - namely, those coming in from Latin and Greek (epic, critic, etc) - and he didn't like it. Words from Old English or Old French were traditionally spelled with a final -k. So it's really Johnson who is the reluctant one to take on board the inevitability of language change.

I'm certain that spelling will change, not least because of the influence of the internet, where people are spelling the way they want without having to have their work checked by copy-editors. Simplifications of irregular forms are bound to take place, and, reinforced by the weight of numbers, may enter standard usage in due course.