Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Killing the Zombies: "Between" and "Since"

In 2005, Arnold Zwicky introduced the term zombie rule to describe a grammar rule that isn't really a rule. Zombie rules are taught, followed, and passed along as rules we must follow to speak and write correctly.

Like their namesakes, however, these rules are dead and no matter how many times it's explained that there is no grammatical basis for them, they just keep coming back.

How do we get such rules? Sometimes well-meaning people, such as our beloved elementary school teachers, pass along a narrow grammar rule as a broad rule and ruthlessly enforce it. Our moldable young minds form around this rule and fix it forever.

Other times, people want to "improve" English and force a rule upon the language. Eighteenth-century grammarians had a big case of "English is rubbish unless it looks like Latin" and tried to create plenty of rules for English. Then our beloved elementary school teachers picked them up, and, well, you can see where that got us. The improvements generally limit the way we naturally use English, forcing us into an unnecessary straightjacket.

And then you have people who don't understand the difference between grammar and style. With the former, there is a right and wrong. You would not say "I are going," after all. But in the latter, there is no right or wrong, merely preference. If you choose to never write in the passive voice, that's allowable, but it isn't ungrammatical to use the passive voice.

In my next few articles, I'll review several zombie rules that you might have been unwittingly taught and arm you to kill those zombies for good. Think of it not so much as getting rid of beloved rules but freeing your writing from unnecessary burdens.

Zombie Rule: Don't Use Since to Mean Because.

According to this zombie, since refers to time; it can't mean "for the reason that." We should use because instead. Outlawed are sentences like:

Since you like chocolate cake, I'll bake you one.

Yet since has continuously been used to mean "because" since 1540. I'm stumped as to who first outlawed this usage, because most of my reference works state how false this rule is. The rule keeps perpetuating, though, despite our best efforts.

There are some ground rules for using since to mean "because," however. The most important is to be careful of a possible confusion between the "because" since and the time since:

Since Sean went outside, I've been on the phone.

Does the sentence mean that I've been on the phone from the time Sean went outside or because Sean went out? If you mean "because" and your reader might pick up the time meaning, you are better off using because.

Second, although the "because" meaning predates Shakespeare, these days we tend to reserve it for casual writing. You may want to keep it out of academic writing, for example.

Finally, some people find because more emphatic and since less so. If you want to emphasize the reason strongly, go with because.

Zombie Rule: Use Between for Two Items and Among for More Than Two Items.

You should never use between to refer to more than two things, says this zombie. Break the word down into its component parts and you get bi-, meaning "by," and tweonum, meaning "two each." So of course between must only be used for two!

Not quite.

Between does show a one-to-one relationship, but it can involve as many items as necessary:

Between you, me, and the lamppost, I think he's full of himself.

Among shows a different relationship, one in which there is no one-to-one connection. It traces back to an Old English phrase, on gemang, meaning "in a crowd."

Among the deceased's effects were a gold watch, several credit cards, and a set of keys.

The best explanation was made over 100 years ago by The Oxford English Dictionary's first editor, James A. H. Murray:

[Between] is still the only word available to express the relation of a thing to many surrounding things severally and individually; among expresses a relation to them collectively and vaguely.

Nothing's changed since Murray's time. Between and among still have different meanings, and we still have a difficult time applying them correctly. Forget the idea of two versus more than two. Think relationships: for one-to-one, use between; for a crowd, use among.


Rate this article:

Click here to read more articles from Word Count.

Erin Brenner is the founder of Right Touch Editing, a customizable editing service. She has been an editing professional for over 15 years and is sought after for her expertise in language mechanics. She works on a variety of media in all levels of editing. In addition, she provides bite-sized lessons to improve your writing on her blog The Writing Resource and is the editor of Copyediting.com, which offers advice and training for those who edit copy. Follow her on Twitter at @ebrenner or on Facebook. Click here to read more articles by Erin Brenner.

Join the conversation

Comments from our users:

Monday June 10th 2013, 8:50 AM
Comment by: sigrossman (Chevy Chase, MD)
Wonderful article!
Monday June 10th 2013, 9:20 AM
Comment by: Erin B. (Haverhill, MA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks!
Monday June 10th 2013, 9:43 AM
Comment by: Dormouse (TX)Top 10 Speller
"And then you have people who don't understand the difference between grammar and style. With the former, [there] is a right and wrong. You would [not] say "I are going," after all. "

???
Monday June 10th 2013, 11:05 AM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
Very good article, Erin - I look forward to reading about the other Zombie Rules in the series!

Interesting bit of trivia: At the end of the fourth paragraph, you refer to a "straightjacket." I believe that the original and preferred spelling is "straitjacket." "Straight" means not curving or bent, but "strait" means narrow and typically restrictive. This describes the jacket in question, and also clarifies a Bible verse that says something like "Strait is the gate and narrow is the way that leads to (eternal?) life ..." The gate is narrow and restrictive, so it's hard for people to squeeze through it and get to heaven, right?.

>sigh< Don't you love words? They're so much fun to work and play with! Notice that I'm brazenly and gleefully ending that sentence with a preposition, and to the Zombie Rule that says I shouldn't I say "Bpbpbphht!" (Is that how you spell a Bronx cheer?)

The Happy Quibbler
Monday June 10th 2013, 11:20 AM
Comment by: Eric N.
Just between you and me, and a few snickers, I think this is great information. ;-)
Monday June 10th 2013, 11:26 AM
Comment by: Erin B. (Haverhill, MA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks, Dormouse. I'll have those errors fixed.

Kristine, you're right that "straightjacket" is a variant spelling and that "strait" refers to a restriction rather than a lack of bending. Words are so interesting!
Monday June 10th 2013, 12:37 PM
Comment by: Kevin E.
Thank you! Great article. Looking forward to the rest of the series!
Monday June 10th 2013, 12:57 PM
Comment by: Roberta M. (Redmond, WA)Top 10 Commenter
I would say I'm waiting with bated breath for the next of the series, except that I'm not sure what 'bated breath' is, and if it's any kind of air restriction, I'll have brain damage before the next essay and won't be able to appreciate it at all!
Monday June 10th 2013, 1:41 PM
Comment by: Erin B. (Haverhill, MA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
I wouldn't want that, Roberta! How about "eagerly await"? ;-)
Monday June 10th 2013, 3:46 PM
Comment by: Lyn P.
Aw, guess I'm just going to have to accept that "since" may be used in place of "because" *sigh*. Another pet peeve about word usage is put aside for a more er, ummm, enlightened -- if reluctant -- acceptance *G*! Great article...zombie rules indeed!
Thursday August 15th 2013, 2:25 AM
Comment by: Rhonda H. (WA)
Thank you! I love it when someone has the nerve to respond to GRAMMAR RANTS.

Do you have a comment?

Share it with the Visual Thesaurus community.

Your comments:

Sign in to post a comment!

We're sorry, you must be a subscriber to comment.

Click here to subscribe today.

Already a subscriber? Click here to login.