Episode 216: April 8, 2010
by Rob Reinalda
Verbal ambiguity can lead to a range of confusing scenarios. Guest-writer Rob Reinalda explains.
How to Use “Between”
Someone once said, “Between Springfield and St. Louis there’s only one brain surgeon.”
“Oh,” came the puzzled reply. “Do you mean that if you combine all the medical professionals in those two cities, there’s only one brain surgeon?
“Or do you mean that within the territory that one must traverse to pass from one city to the other, there’s only one brain surgeon?”
Turns out, it was the latter--there's only one brain surgeon practicing in the region between Springfield and St. Louis.
As with many words that have multiple interpretations or applications, “between” can create confusion.
“Between 2003 and 2004 … ” one might write. Guess what? There is nothing between 2003 and 2004. There’s not an infinitesimal fragment of time there; it’s one year or the other.
If you use “between 2003 and 2004” construction, you may be trying to describe a time spanning all or part of those two years or you may be trying to contrast one year against the other, and there are better ways to do both.
For example, let's say you want to you want to talk inclusively about 2003 and 2004. You could write “In 2003 and 2004 …” or “From 2003 through 2004 …”
"From 2003 through 2004" is still a bit nebulous, as you’re not specifying when in 2003 your starting point is. “From the start of 2003 through 2004 …” makes it clear that you mean from the beginning of 2003 through the end of 2004.
If you want to contrast two years, make that clear, too: “In 2004, more than 3,500 bison flew out of the Buffalo airport, contrasted with 2003, when only 1,900 buffalo took wing.”
How to Use "Compared To" and "Compared With"
As an aside, because “compared to" and "compared with” constructions are so widely—almost zealously—botched, spare yourself. Use “liken to” and “contrast with,” and you’ll save yourself about a hundred bucks a year in headache remedies. However, if you must, here’s the Quick and Dirty Tip: “Compare to” refers to similarities, and “compare with” indicates considering both similarities and differences (1, 2).
For example, Squiggly could compare a flying bison's take off to that of a Chinook helicopter. When he uses "compare to," he's noting the similarity. On the other hand, Aardvark could compare a bison with a Chinook helicopter to look for clues about how a bison could fly. When he uses "compare with," he's examining both things that are the same between a helicopter and a bison, and things that are different.
Between, the Preposition
Two more notes on “between.” It’s often used as a preposition, and when it is, use the objective case of the pronouns—“ just between you and me,” “that’s between him and her,” “there’s a rift between them and us.”
"Between" Versus "Among"
We also recently covered the difference between the words "between" and "among." As a brief review, you often use "between" when you're referring to two individuals or entities and "among" when you're referring to people or items in a larger group, but it's much more nuanced than that, so if you're interested, refresh your memory.
How to Use the Word “Ranges”
Make sure your range really spans something.
Very often a writer will use a range in mentioning a collection of distinct yet closely related elements: “Contributors range from internal communicators to external communicators to public relations professionals to journalists to bloggers.” Gee, that’s not much of a range, is it?
The Quick and Dirty Tip on using the word “ranges” is this: Make sure your “range” really spans something. Imagine that the range is like the one in the song “Home on the Range”—offering a wide, expansive view, of an entire landscape from end to end. Your range can span many things--time, size, the alphabet, a continuum of dress designs throughout the ages.
The totem poles in the display ranged from three feet to four feet tall.
Her hair color over the years had ranged from platinum blond to raven black.
If you're describing a collection of things, use the words "as diverse as" or "as varied as" instead of "range" (3, 4): His collectibles were as diverse as steam calliopes, odd-shaped persimmons, and Esperanto bartender guides.
"Include" also works. Contributors include internal communicators, journalists, and bloggers. Remember this, though: When you use “include,” don’t list every contributor (or whatever). Those who are “included” are a subset of the entirety.
Garner, B. Garner's Modern American Usage, Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2003, p. 172.
Brians, P. Common Errors in English Usage. Wilsonville: William, James & Co., 2003, p. 45.