Yes, you can use 'between' to refer to more than two

Can two people talk among themselves? Can three people have disagreements between them?

According to some of the more strict language authorities, no. That’s not how “among” and “between” work. But in the real world, the definitions are more forgiving.

Let’s start with this rule for publishers explained in the Chicago Manual of Style: “‘Between’ indicates one-to-one relationships (between you and me). ‘Among’ indicates undefined or collective relationships (honor among thieves).”

What if you have one-on-one activities within a group of more than two? For example, when you’re talking about pairs of member countries of the European Union that trade with each other? The Chicago Manual says “between” works in these situations because you’re still talking about one-on-one exchanges: “‘Between’ has long been recognized as being perfectly appropriate for more than two objects if multiple one-to-one relationships are understood from the context (trade between members of the European Union).”

The equally influential Associated Press Stylebook has the same rule: “The maxim that ‘between’ introduces two items and ‘among’ introduces more than two covers most questions about how to use these words: ‘The choice is between fish and tofu. The funds were divided among Ford, Carter and McCarthy.’” AP agrees that one-on-one relationships within larger groups get “between,” as well: “‘Between’ is the correct word when expressing the relationships of three or more items considered one pair at a time: ‘The games between the Yankees, Phillies and Mets have been rollicking ones.’”

As far as anyone can tell, this rule dates back to 1851 when the “Grammar of English Grammars” (not published, as far as I know, by the Department of Redundancy Department) by a language expert named Goold Brown, insisted that “between” used for more than two people or things “is a misapplication of the word ‘between,’ which cannot have reference to more than two.”

Other grammar authors followed Brown’s lead, and the idea caught hold that you can never say, as Jane Austen did: “This, of course, is between our three discreet selves.”

But years before these experts starting say this use of "between" for more than two was wrong, other experts — notably, one Noah Webster — said it was fine. Here's the full story in my recent column.

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