‘But we haven’t got a bed-post,’ said my husband captiously when I had shared a confidence between him, me and the bedpost.
‘But we haven’t got a bed-post,’ said my husband captiously when I had shared a confidence between him, me and the bedpost. I left the room to turn down the stock on the gas-stove.
With Dickens, I have since discovered, or with Miss La Creevy, the miniature-painter in Nicholas Nickleby, it was ‘between you and me and the post’. That was in 1839. Others have it as gatepost or lamp post. The unhearing, unspeaking reliability of posts is the point, the exception being a listening-post.
My real interest is with between. Some people don’t like between to be applied to more than two things. But what of inserting a needle between the closed petals of a flower, an example given by the clever men at Oxford in their 20-volume English Dictionary? Indeed they become quite chatty on the subject. ‘In all senses, between has been, from its earliest appearance, extended to more than two,’ they note, even though we dare not do everything our Anglo-Saxon forefathers did. ‘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”.’
That might be an end of it, were it not for hatred of another construction: between each (the notion being that, since each is a singularity, nothing can come between it). A good counter-example comes in a translation made in 1856 by John Williams of a Welsh grammar compiled 600 years earlier by Ederyn the Golden Tongued: ‘A syllable that terminates with four consonants, having the obscure pronunciation of the mutescent y between each is called confertisparsison.’ (That word is from Latin confertus ‘crowded’, sparsus ‘sparse’ and sonus ‘sound’, and I look forward to being able to use it one distant day.)
The last hurdle for the correct use of between is ‘between you and I’. Shakespeare uses it, but I wouldn’t.
All this shows merely that grammar follows rules. Babies are the strictest grammarians, saying wented to abide by the rule they have observed that past forms end in –ed. Babyish failure to distinguish makes for foolish pedantry.
— Dot Wordsworth
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated January 29, 2011