Friday, 23 September 2011

"Each other" and "one another"

While these two phrases appear to have become interchangeable for many speakers (and even for some otherwise careful writers), disregarding the difference between them will mean sacrificing an element of clarity in some contexts.

The traditional rule is that each other is used when there are only two individuals (or parties) involved, and “one another” in the case of more than two. So I would interpret (1) below as involving only two neighbours, while I see (2) as involving more than two:

(1)        The neighbours greet each other every morning.
(2)        The neighbours greet one another every morning.

Rather than excuse careless usage by saying that the context or situation will usually resolve any ambiguity that may arise, it’s better to try and ensure unambiguous communication by making the necessary linguistic distinctions in the first place.

The use of each other does not necessarily require or imply the involvement of only two people in total; sometimes more than two may be involved, but the number of parties (whether individuals or groups) would be understood to be limited to two.


(3)        At the antenatal classes husbands and wives were asked to help each other practise for the birth of their babies.
(4)        At the antenatal classes husbands and wives were asked to help one another practise for the birth of their babies.

My interpretation of (3) would be that each husband would help (only) his own wife and each wife would help (only) her own husband, whereas the wording of (4) would lead me to believe that husbands could help other men’s wives and vice versa – which might not be likely, but is nevertheless conceivable (no pun intended). My point is: Why leave the interpretation open to doubt when using the correct phrase would remove all ambiguity?

To end with, consider how you might interpret the difference between the following two sentences:

(5)        The boys and the girls avoided each other.
(6)        The boys and the girls avoided one another.

– ws – 

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