Betwixt and between: difficult grammar rules explained

Posted by Alison on 11/25/19 11:00 AM

Grammar-2English is not the easiest language to learn. This may be because of the many exceptions to its rules or because the same combinations of letters can be pronounced in many different ways. English also has one of the largest vocabularies of any recorded language, which means English speakers can say what they mean in a lot of different ways, but they also have a lot more words potentially to misuse, often without even realizing it. This post covers the correct application of some words that sound right but are often spoken or written in the wrong time or place.

Betwixt and between (or among?)

Between you and me, a lot of people don’t know what “between” actually means. Its Old English origin reveals its relation to the word “two”, as its spelling suggests. Between is a preposition that, by definition, refers to the relationship connecting or separating two items.

Here are some concrete examples:

The library is located between the park and the school.

There are a lot of similarities between my brother and me.

Scientists have found a strong connection between exercise and good health.

The distance between Boston and New York is about 220 miles.

Among:

Among is used when there are more than two items or people in the mix, or for describing the relationships of collective and undefined items in a group.

For example:

Among all the desserts, ice cream is my favorite.

An agreement was made among teachers to give less homework over the vacations.

There are a lot of good movies among those nominated for awards this year.

There is, unsurprisingly, a little more nuance between these two terms than the above explanations suggest. The other factor in the equation of when to use “between” vs. “among” has to do with the nature of the relationship of items being discussed. The New Oxford American Dictionary describes the caveat to the rule, which the Chicago Manual of Style also follows: “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'”.

For example:

I can’t decide between chocolate cake, apple pie, or tiramisu.

The negotiations between Mexico, Canada, and the United States are ongoing.

Consider the following sentences:

Between fall and winter, I prefer the fall.

In the above sentence, the two items being compared are the seasons of fall and winter.

Between fall, winter, spring, and summer, I prefer the fall.

Now we are comparing four items (fall, winter, spring, and summer) as opposed to the initial two, but because the relationship of each item is the same, it would be acceptable to use between.

Since the group of items exceeds two, however, among is also appropriate:

Among the seasons of fall, winter, spring, and summer, I prefer the fall.

Fewer rules, less success

It’s less difficult than you think to understand the difference between less and fewer. Less and fewer, when used in the same context, convey that there is a smaller amount of the subsequent thing (or things) being described. Fewer is the comparative form of the adjective few, and it is used before all countable nouns. A countable noun is a noun that refers to a group of things that you can count individually, such as apples, pencils, sports, or snowflakes. Less is a determiner and precedes all uncountable nouns. An uncountable noun functions as a singular noun in a sentence and refers to something that cannot be counted one by one, like time, snow, and happiness.

Always use fewer before a countable noun and less before uncountable nouns. Here are a couple examples to illustrate this distinction:

Some teachers are giving less homework to students. With fewer assignments to complete, students can participate more in extracurricular activities.

Because this year brought less snow, schools received fewer snow days.

People should spend fewer hours on their cell phones because they are spending less time having face-to-face conversations than they previously did .

A timely reminder about what it means to be punctual

Timely sounds like it means on time, but it does not. A timely event occurs at the right time, or at an advantageous moment. Synonyms for timely include opportune, convenient, expedient, and well-timed.

Punctual means on time. You are punctual if you arrive at or before the scheduled moment of an appointment or whatever time was agreed upon to do something.

For example:

Thank you for sending me that timely article about national parks, as I am about to begin a cross-country road trip and need ideas for places to visit.

Please be punctual when we meet at the station – we cannot afford to miss this train.

Note: a punctual person is one who is regularly on time rather than one in the habit of arriving late. A timely event or reminder takes place when it will be useful to you. It does not make sense to describe a person as timely.

Alison studied Comparative Literature and Italian Studies at Brown University. While studying abroad for a year at the University of Bologna in Italy, she tutored English as a Second Language to Italian children, and that experience clarified her desire to pursue teaching. Alison graduated magna cum laude with honors for her senior thesis about children in adult literature who grow up too quickly; she remained at Brown for a fifth year to complete a Master of Arts in Teaching Secondary English program.

After returning to Italy to teach English for a year at a prestigious classical Italian high school in Bergamo, Alison is happy to be back close to home, teaching high school English in Acton (at her own high school rival!). She also teaches a community education ESL class for adults. With extensive writing and editing experience, she has worked with children as well as adults in ESL and English reading comprehension and writing, including for college admissions essays and SAT and AP exams. Alison also enjoys working with students on their ISEE and SSAT exams for middle school and high school admissions. She also created and contributed regular posts to a grammar blog. What she loves most about teaching is the opportunity to be surprised by the insight borne of her students’ questions and comments.

Work with Alison!

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Tags: creative writing, English, expository writing