October 6, 2011

Weekly Language Usage Tips: no sooner than or when & between/among

Posted in among/between, no sooner than/when at 6:44 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: No sooner than or when

A reader asks:

A quick question: what follows sooner in the expression, ‘no sooner’—should it be ‘no sooner when’ or ‘no sooner than’?

For example, is the sentence correct, here:

She had no sooner finished her presentation when an ocean of hands raised to question her about the research.

or here?

She had no sooner finished her presentation than an ocean of hands raised to question her about the research.

This is a question that comes up often, and I can understand why—it describes a temporal condition (just as one thing happened, another thing happened), so it seems to call for ‘when.’

However, the correct answer is ‘than’:

She had no sooner finished her presentation than an ocean of hands raised to question her about the research.

The reason ‘than’ is correct is this: ‘sooner’ is a comparative adverb (an adverb comparing two things) that calls for a subordinate conjunction such as ‘than’ to finish the comparison. For example:

I arrived at the office sooner than I thought I would arrive.

The paper was in considerably better shape than I expected.

So what is important, here, is not the temporal aspect but the comparative aspect of the sentence, calling for the use of ‘than.’

I had no sooner completed my explanation of the grammar than I received multiple emails challenging my account.

So just remember ‘sooner’ goes with ‘than’ not ‘when.’ Once in a while, you will see ‘sooner’ matched with ‘then,’ which is also wrong—just remember that ‘sooner’ goes with ‘than.’

The award had no sooner been announced than the calls came flooding in.

“No sooner’ and ‘than’—that’s the combination to keep in mind.

Tip 2: Between or among

A reader writes:

I have noticed a shift in the usage of “between” and “among” in the press. “Between” seems to be used in place of “among” more and more frequently. Here’s an example from the AFP.

(I would not have used either between or among here, I would have used “by.”) Any comment?

[NOTE: AFP stands for Agence France-Press and is an international news agency akin to Reuters or BBC News. In fact, AFP is the original and oldest news agency in the world.]

“The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, a joint project between Canada, Chile, the European Union, Japan, Taiwan and the United States, officially opened for astronomers after a decade of planning and construction.”

I have to admit that I haven’t notice such a trend (I’ll pay more attention now), but, more importantly, this usage doesn’t bother me and has long been accepted by grammarians of all ilk (i.e., prescriptivists, descriptivists, and all those in between).  We’ve talked about this before, but let me try a new explanation to clarify this.

We were all taught that if you were talking about two thing, you use ‘between,’ and if you are talking about three or more things, you should use ‘among.’ And that has served us in good stead for much of our writing needs; however, there is an exception to this rule. ‘Between’ has long been used for more than two items when there is a one-to-one or reciprocal relationship between the items. For example, while you could say:

An agreement among editors of Science, Nature, JAMA, Circulation, and the New England Journal of Medicine was reached.

This seems a little vague, and it unclear whether the agreement is in place for all of the editors or just some of the editors.

Because there is a one-to-one or reciprocal relationship between the editors—the editors of each journal specifically made an agreement with each of the others, ‘between’ rather than ‘among’ is called for.

An agreement between editors of Science, Nature, JAMA, Circulation, and the New England Journal of Medicine was reached.

So in the example, cited by our reader, there are reciprocal or one-to-one relationships between the countries, the use of ‘between’ has long been accepted.

Here is what the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) has to say on the subject:

In all senses, between has been, from its earliest appearance, extended to more than two… 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’.

[ASIDE: While I agree with the OED that we would not use ‘among’ in those examples, I am nonplussed by the final example: why on earth would we insert a needle among the closed petals of a flower?]

And while we know by heart the rule of using ‘between’ for two things and ‘among’ for more than two, I think we instinctively respond to the distinction in meaning when we say something like,

I walked among the trees versus I walked between the trees.

In both cases, there are more than two trees; however, in the case of ‘among,’ we think of the trees as a group (a forest) that we traveled through, and in the case of ‘between,’ the trees are individual trees through which we traversed without contact.

All of the authorities I consulted concurred with my views on this, so I feel I am on safe ground when I say that there are times when you can use ‘between’ for more than two things.

1 Comment »

  1. qanknit said,

    You said, “… why on earth would we insert a needle among the closed petals of a flower?”
    There may be some horticultural reason, too, but I could understand it as part of an instruction in embroidery.


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