On Language
by William Safire

New York Times Magazine
April 4, 1999

Between us two: each or one another?

"The two were not only made for each other," wrote The Washington Times about star-crossed lovers, "they deserve one another."

The editorialist, grappling with the rule s of correctness, was undoubtedly torn. Question: When writing about a relationship between two people, is it proper to use each other or one another ? The writer refused to choose, and the editorial went both ways.

At the New York Times, we have firm guidance to keep us from such pushmipullyu style. Our Style Manual, now embedded in software so that century-old judgments can be amended in a flash, is sternly prescriptive: each other, one another: two persons look at each other; more than two look at one another."

A style is a set of conventions, not a fundament of grammar fixed in our brains like subject-verb agreement. A stylistic rule is not a law. No cellblock in Reading Gaol is reserved for those condemned of using between the three (and indeed a medal is pinned on writers careful to use between when expressing a relationship of several items considered a pair at the time).

But when you play by the rules of grammar -- that is, when you agree to adopt a style that befits a certain level and tone of discourse -- and then stick to the rules you've learned, you get a subtle intellectual kick that the anything-goes crowd never experiences. And when you break any rule for effect, as when you use a sentence fragment now and then for emphasis, or begin a sentence with and to foster an illusion of spontaneity or afterthought, you are like an actor playing a drunk and performing an exquisite stumble.

The respecter of the rules of an adopted style becomes a member of a club so determinedly inclusive as to be truly snooty. You're in, and nobody can cancel your membership as long as you consult the rule book. The secret handshake and the code ring are yours. With these symbols comes the sense of belonging, of serene security, of smug noninferiority that suffuses all those who clothe themselves voluntarily in the golden chains of good usage. (I learned psychology from "The Story of O.")

If you take language as a metaphor for life, your respect for the gently arbitrary rules of style signifies your willingness to respect the rules of civility in the way you behave. Breaking a rule of style or even of civility gains force and meaning only when you know what code you are violating and why.

Imagine, two centuries ago, the copy editor for the Committee on Style of the Constitutional Convention going up to Thomas Jefferson and pointing to the last line of his proposed Unanimous Declaration of the Thirteen United States of America: "We mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor."

"Not only is mutually redundant, Tom, but you're referring to more than two people, so it should be one another."

And Jefferson would reply: "We're the Committee on Style, right? Leave it the way it is."