Thursday, October 20, 2011

Calling Native English Speakers

My dear readers, I have a bit of a grammatical conundrum. A grammandrum, if you will.

We all know the difference between "between" and "among": use "between" when it's, well, a choice between two options, and "among" when you are talking about three or more. For instance:

I cannot choose between tiramisu and cheese cake. (This is a complete lie. I totally go for tiramisu every time.)

Among the deserts available at Fancy Restaurant, the best one is their tiramisu.

However, there's a bit of a caveat, as Grammar Girl taught me some time ago. When your choice is among three or more specific things, then the use of "between" is appropriate. For instance:

Mary is choosing among several top schools.


Mary is choosing between Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. (Note the use of "between" when the different options are specific.)

Now, why are we doing this little grammar exercise? Because I just received a proof for a paper of mine. This journal lets you see the copy-edited version as well as the proof. In the copy-edited version, I noticed that this sentence had been edited:

"... there is a connection between Math Concept A, Math Concept B, and Math Concept C".

The concepts are very specific, therefore, according to Grammar Girl, "between" is appropriate. However, the copy editor changed it to "among".

Dear reader, do you think the copy editor was right? (Which would make Grammar Girl's advice wrong.) Clearly, we must have a poll:

Was the copy editor right or wrong to change "between" to "among" in the sentence above?
S/he was right
S/he was wrong
Who cares? free polls 

If you think the copy editor was wrong, would you request that they change it back or would you just leave it alone because, really, who cares?


Cath brought up another interesting issue, so on to another poll:

Which form is the correct one?
Mary is choosing among several top schools.
Mary is choosing from among several top schools.
Both are OK. free polls 


Cath@VWXYNot? said...

I voted that s/he was wrong - "choosing between" things is a different concept to "connections between" things. You can't really have connections among things - that just doesn't sound right.

Having said that, I would change "Mary is choosing among several top schools" to "Mary is choosing FROM among several top schools", although not having had much formal instruction in English grammar I'm not sure that's correct!

If I was the copy editor and I really had a problem with the original wording, "there are connections between A, B, and C" might have worked better. Or "A, B, and C are connected".

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Or "A, B, and C are connected".

DING! DING! DING! We have a winner!

GMP said...

Cath, I would also say "choosing from among top schools," and that's how I had it in the original post (20 min ago :-). Then I went back to Grammar Girl's page and she has this sentence "She chose among the Ivy League schools." Since I am quick to dismiss my non-native-speaker intuition about what's correct, I changed it.

But we can do another poll!!! :-)

Postdoc said...

A quick, nonscientific method: googling "choosing among" pulls up 1.18 million hits, but googling "choosing from among" only pulls up 797,000 hits. Not very scientific, but for what it's worth. :P

Alex said...

I voted "Who cares?"

I think there's room for wiggle here, so I'd go with the copy editor. However specific those math concepts are, a concept is, in some sense, still general, in that it can be applied to many things.

Or so it seems to me without knowing your specific context.

Anonymous said...

I think it also depends on the journal. In my field, the European journals have different conventions than the American journals. My PhD advisor didn't like publishing in the European journals because he was a grammar stickler and didn't like the heavy-handed editing his manuscripts were subjected to.

Cath@VWXYNot? said...

@postdoc: well, by the same measure "here here" outperforms "hear hear" by almost three to one, but is demonstrably wrong

(pet peeve! :) )

Cloud said...

I'm with Comrade PhysioProf- reword that sentence. It is awkward with either between or among. But I think Cath is right- there is a difference between choosing between and a connection among.

For the absolute truth, you could consult a style guide. I think the Chicago one is available online....

And I think is "choosing from among" correct. For whatever that is worth.

Alyssa said...

I think saying "among Math Concept A,..." just sounds wrong, so I voted that the editor was wrong in the change. I'm not sure I would request a change in the paper though.

For the second poll, both sound okay to me.

Alex said...

The Economist style guide claims that the distinction between among and between is among other things artificial and incorrect.

However once people have become convinced that it is incorrect to use among between two choices using between when people expect among interrupts the reading flow and as such is best avoided.

Crystal Voodoo said...

So as an FYI, many journals are now outsourcing their copy editing to India (for reals). Depending on the journal the editor may not be a native speaker either. I have made copy editors fix a grammatical error they put in my paper in proofs before and never had an issue.

In regards to your second poll question. I would say both are correct with the caveat that scientific writing is best served with economy of language so stylistically I would choose the former.

Cloud said...

@Crystal Voodoo- chance are someone with a job as an English copy editor in India is in fact a native English speaker, just of a different dialect than Americans.

Crystal Voodoo said...

@Cloud Valid point and please forgive any disrespect.

In my case the errors were changes to incorrect verb conjugations and pronouns neither of which could be accounted for by conversion to British English. Given the cut and paste nature of copy editing the changes must have been purposeful and many were so elementary that either the editor didn't speak English natively or they had confused my paper for the comments section of a lolcat post.

However my former PI was British and when my first manuscript proof came back converted entirely to -our, -ise and sulphur I went into his office and asked if he was screwing with me. He nearly laughed out of his chair and then reminded me the journal was based in England. Good memories.

Alethea said...

What about "amongst," for even more grammatical trickery?

Anonymous said...

I routinely correct the grammar of my copy-editors. Hmm... maybe this means I'm not publishing in good enough journals?

Gears said...

This strikes me as one of those "if a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does anyone really care?"


Anonymous said...

I'm a postdoc in a technical field and also do academic copy editing on the side, for whatever that's worth. The company I work for is occasionally hired by publishers to edit accepted articles, and my rank is "senior editor" (I edit junior editors' edits).

I see no clear rules here; neither version sounds totally wrong. My preference is for "among math concepts A, B, and C." This syntax emphasizes that there are common features shared by one or more items. I read "among math concepts" as saying "A, B, and C form a connected graph" (if we think of the concepts as nodes and connections as edges). In contrast, the "between" construction is more like "A, B, and C have edges between them," and it implies to me that the graph is complete. As you mention, I think about pairwise comparisons with "between" and common features with "among." Either could work, but considering the generality of the sentence, I prefer "among."

While I think this level of editing is probably not terribly important, I am so glad you care about writing well. All the people who think it's superficial do science a disservices.

Anonymous said...

Haha. I meant "disservice."

Postdoc said...

@Cath@VWXYNot? - Well, Here Here is the name of a band ( and Here, Here and Here is the name of an album (,_Here_and_Here), so that certainly affects that analysis!

Alexander the Great said...

I am the first person who posted as Alex, not the second. In order to avoid confusion, I shall use the longer version of my name, and append an appropriate descriptor.

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

Neither "... there is a connection between Math Concept A, Math Concept B, and Math Concept C" nor
"... there is a connection among Math Concept A, Math Concept B, and Math Concept C" seems right to me. A "connection between" is a graph edge, not a hyper edge. The closest I can get is "there are connections between …" (where either "among" or "between" is ok for me).

In my dialect of English, I can choose from a set and I can choose between two things, but I can't choose among things. For me, the only choice is "choose from among". This may vary by dialect, though.

GMP said...

gasstationwithoutpumps, it's really one common thread sewing together A, B, and C, i.e. the connections aren't really binary. The full sentence is actually quite formal, as the paper is heavily mathematical, as in "It can be shown that there is a connection between A, B, and C (see Appendix A)." And then there are 5 pages of math in Appendix A.

DocG said...

There is no such thing as a connection "among." And a connection "between" three different things sounds awkward. If you are trying to say that A, B and C are interconnected, then maybe that's all you need to say, i.e.: "A, B and C are interconnected."

And by the way, I am troubled by the use of the word "to" in the first comment above: '"choosing between" things is a different concept to "connections between" things.' I realize that this usage has become very common, especially in Britain, but it disturbs me because prepositions are essential to the logic of sentences, and when an idiomatic usage trumps logic, there is a danger of confusion.

Nothing can be different "to" anything else. The word "to" implies motion, which is not a factor in this case. The correct usage is "different from." In most cases it might not seem to matter, since the intended meaning can be inferred. However, in some cases it might either change the meaning or result in confusion. I realize this has become a commonly used idiom for many, but imo it represents a degradation not only of the English language, but logical thinking generally. said...

Coming kind of late to this, but I was also taught between only applies to two things while among is used for more than two objects.

I was also taught that compare means to find likenesses among objects while contrast means to find differences. It's obvious that isn't common usage, though it not being common usage doesn't mean the misuse is correct.

Finally, it should simply be 'among several schools', not 'from among'. You shouldn't use two prepositional phrases in a row. From is not supposed to be an adverb describing among, so among is sufficient.

That being said, I try not to be too picky about these types of things when reading other people's work (as the proper use is not necessarily the common one), so I'm not sure why your reviewer changed it.

Anonymous said...

This isn't really a grammar issue. It's a style issue. And the number one question for matters of style in science is "what is the clearest way to express the information?" Differences of opinion about word choice or usage can almost always be resolved by rewriting the sentence to be more clear.

That said, I disagree with the editor in this case.

Cath@VWXYNot? said...

@DocG: my high school English teacher (in England, in the late 80s/early 90s) specifically taught us that both "different from" and "different to" are fine, but that anyone using "different than" should be immediately shot!

The alt.usage.english newsgroup has an interesting piece on UK vs. US usage in writing and in speech, and Oxford Dictionaries says the following: "Some people criticize different than as incorrect but there’s no real justification for this view. There’s little difference in sense between the three expressions, and all of them are used by respected writers.

Sorry to have troubled and disturbed you so much, though ;)

DocG said...

I'm not criticizing you personally, Cath. "Different to" is certainly a widely accepted usage, especially in Britain. But that's precisely what I'm objecting to: its wide acceptance, which in my view weakens the language.

There is a clear logical opposition between "to" and "from," obviously. And when we see them being used interchangeably, that should concern us. There are, of course, certain illogical elements in language that are accepted as idioms and rightly so, since in such cases the intended meaning is almost always unambiguous.

In this case, however, we are not simply talking about the illogical use of a word, but the careless misuse of a logical opposition.

And it CAN make a difference. For example: "All the students were different to George." Under standard British usage this sentence is ambiguous. It could mean George thought all the students were different from one another. OR it could mean all the students differed from George.