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!
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.