One, two, many

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It is sometimes said that there are so-called ‘primitive’ languages which cannot count beyond two.

I find this difficult to believe; but there are certainly languages which distinguish grammatically between one, two and many. They have not simply a singular and plural, but also a dual number. They are therefore not less sophisticated, but in this particular area, more precise, than those with ‘only’ two categories of number. The Indo-European languages’ ancestor was one of these, and there are some remnants of it in many of its descendants – including the Germanic languages, of which English is one, and this may come as a surprise to many English speakers. Nevertheless, such words as between, both and either all imply no more than two items. However, this appears to be breaking down in present-day English, with these words being used in new ways. Here, we discuss between.

Between implies, as the OED makes clear, a central point in relation to two or more peripheral points in opposite directions. These may be geographical points (between London and Manchester) or amounts in numerical terms (between forty and fifty), or even different philosophical or ethical standpoints (between liberty and slavery).

The OED has many sub-divisions for the meanings of this word, and many citations for each sub-division, but in every case where the two extremes are mentioned, the construction used is between … and.

Recently, however, I have started noticing that the word and is being replaced by to. I assume that it has been going on for some time before it became frequent enough for me to become aware of it. Here are some of the most recent that I have noted.

1. The number of real estate agents in the US is between 2.5 to three million. (Digg; 20.11.2023).

2. He added that there are between 1.25 lakh to 1.35 lakh Khoja Shias across the world. (Times of India, page 7; 26.11.2023)

3. “There are between 400 to 500 indigenous tribes in the Amazon Rain Forest.” (quizmaster explaining the answer to a question; 21.01.2024)

And even or:

4. [There will be] high winds between 60 or70 mph (BBC1 10 O’Clock News; 21.01.2024)

Are these to be dismissed as slips of the tongue, or merely the speaker changing the sentence structure in mid-stream, or are they a genuine change in the use of between, which needs to be incorporated in manuals of English usage?

One Comment

  1. Possibly influenced by the practice often found in Thai language texts, I also see in written texts dealing with numbers, dates, etc, ‘between X-Y’ or ‘between x – y’ with no limit on the length of the dash. You must recognize that punctuation markers are being increasingly used in Thai, which used to be happy solely with gaps between syntactic units (not even between words). But as may be expected, the markers have been borrowed with only a hazy idea of how they are to be used. Thus quotation marks are sometimes seen in Thai texts surrounding quotations, but equally often are used to denote emphasis (where in English one might use italics or bold). If I had a hot dinner for the number of times I’ve had to correct this misuse, my weight problem would be far worse than it already is.

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