Just Between You and Me

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Looking to start a fight between two corporate attorneys? Ask whether an agreement is made between Tom, Dick, and Harry—or among Tom, Dick, and Harry.

Many lawyers cling to junior-high grammar rules, which would dictate agreements between two parties and among three or more. Think metaphorically instead: Is a multi-party agreement more like “sand between the toes” or a “disagreement among friends”?

It’s true that between generally links two items; among works for three or more. But the key word here is “generally.”

  • Strunk & White: Style experts Strunk and White recommend among only to express vague relationships: “I divided the money among my colleagues.” When each item has a relation to the other, by contrast, between is preferred: “an agreement between the six heirs.”
  • Oxford English Dictionary: The Oxford English Dictionary agrees: “we should not say . . . a treaty among three powers.” Nor should we write that “the choice lies among three candidates.”

Closer to home, we say, “I feel the sand between my toes,” and “I floss between my teeth,” even though most of us have ten toes and at least as many teeth.

So what to do in the contract world? Parties to agreements are more like countries signing treaties than friends disagreeing over movies. In a contract, each party has obligations toward the other, just as the sand on the beach scratches between each pair of toes.

Bottom line: between is your better bet.

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