Thursday, 15 May 2014

Miss Schoolmarm gives out a whack

Okay, class, try reading this lead sentence quickly:

Because the Bretton Woods system had broken down only a few years before the financial markets needed a metric by which to judge whether government policies were “sustainable.” That metric became the money supply. This was a classic example of a rather unimportant variable becoming important merely because people began to think it important.
You probably stumbled over the first sentence because a crucial comma was left out [in the original—I didn’t manipulate it]. The addition of the key punctuation mark after the word “before,” makes the entire thing immediately comprehensible:

Because the Bretton Woods system had broken down only a few years before, the financial markets needed a metric by which to judge whether government policies were “sustainable.”

As a frequent editor of other people’s prose as well as my own, I often get into disputes about why we need to have grammatical rules and follow them. My answer is, To save time, get to the point and not waste energy deciphering cuneiform or consulting Tarot cards. If we want to make sense to a reader, we agree to the meaning of the signage in use.

That lengthy preamble leads me to my beef de jour: between v/s among. This must be among the most abused and ignored distinctions in modern English.

The classic rule of usage is simple: between means that there are two elements in play, among means three or more. Communication with your boyfriend is “between” the two of you, sex in groups occurs “among” at least three—isn’t that graphic? So here are just a few of the recent examples I’ve accumulated where this guidelines is flushed down the grammatical toilet:

The facts: The PPACA regards health care not as a “right,” but as a “shared responsibility” between “the federal government, state governments, insurers, employers and individuals” (IRS, “Questions and Answers on the Individual Shared Responsibility Provision”; see also 42 U.S. Code Chapter 157, Subchapter V – SHARED RESPONSIBILITY FOR HEALTH CARE).


Even if results are declared clean, they will only be final if one candidate gets more than 50% of the vote. Anything lower triggers a second round runoff, and with strong competition between the top three candidates another polling day seems more likely than not. Emma Graham-Harrison, The Guardian, April 6, 2014

“At their peak, during the Soviet period, the town's three glass factories employed more than 15,000 people between them.” --Shaun Walker, Ukraine: siege mentality pushes south-eastern region to precipice of civil war, The Guardian, May 9, 2014

It is sometimes assumed that Sisi's grip on power is total. Certainly he enjoys more influence than any other Egyptian and has a large, sycophantic following. But how much power he wields directly – and how much cohesion there is between his army, the secret police, the cabinet, and the judiciary – is unknown. Patrick Kingsley, The Observer, March 22, 2014

Or how about this howler?

According to the information obtained from sources, the recording consists of a chat between four officials in Davuto─člu’s office before the commencement of the official meeting with the participation of more civil and military bureaucrats in another room at the Foreign Ministry. Moon of Alabama, March 28, 2014

You might say, Who cares? What’s the big deal if we see that there are actually four officials schmoozing in Turkey or three glass factories in the Soviet Union? Well, take a look at this admirably correct use of the two prepositions and see how much clarity is added to the paragraph [BRICs refers to Brazil, Russia, India and China]:

In some ways, the other BRICs countries’ support for Russia is entirely predictable. The group has always been somewhat constrained by the animosities that exist between certain members, as well as the general lack of shared purpose among such different and geographically dispersed nations. –Zachary Keck, “Why did the BRICs back Russia on Crimea?” The Diplomat, March 31, 2014

This commentator refers both to the bilateral dealings that crop up between, say, China and Brazil or Russia and China and to the whole-group arena where they have or do not have joint interests. The correct placement of the lead-in words facilitates quick comprehension of the different circumstances involved in the same sentence. It is a complex thought that we can grasp without the assistance of a psychic.

Then note, by contrast, how the incorrect usage below muddies the conceptual waters instead of saying what it is trying to mean:

But while a cookie-cutter approach will not recognize differences between countries, conversely, overemphasizing national ownership can leave room for forces that defeat the very purpose of international intervention. A politically savvy and productive strategy would entail improved communication between the target governments and global health institutions. To that end, international health institutions should learn to conduct effective health diplomacy and to negotiate with their counterparts in a manner that is simultaneously candid, nuanced, and practical. -Global Fund Observer, 16 April 2014

The first between is incorrect because the writer means to describe the broad diversity of countries, not one-on-one comparisons. Although the second between is correct, it almost comes too late to help us through this swamp of a paragraph.

So class, let’s all avoid being a DON’T-BEE and steer clear of wrong-headed prose like this:

Jefferson encouraged new skills, but did not provide any formal reading and writing instruction. In fact, he thought slaves should not learn to write because they could pass info between themselves which might lead to revolt. – Comment on Coursera thread, "History of the Slave South," U. of Pennsylvania, March 2014

Given that I suspect there were more than two slaves who might have wanted to pass around information, I’d vote for “among” here.

But to end on a positive note, three hurrahs for whoever gave us this wonderful phrase describing long-suffering, elderly rural Russian women in Lyudmila Ulitskaya’s marvelous New Yorker story of May 12, 2014, “The Fugitive”:

There were two teeth among the three of them.

Bravo to Lyudmila. Or her editor.

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