each other

Over on Language Log, a discussion of David Foster Wallace’s recommendations on grammar and usage brought up the “rule” on choosing each other or one another as a reciprocal: each other restricted to two, one another to more than two. This strict differentiation — an aggressive application of the One Right Way idea — has a long history (going back at least to 1785), sketched in MWDEU.

In 1851 Goold Brown pointed out that “misapplications of the foregoing reciprocal terms are very frequent in books” and noted with astonishment that “it is strange that phrases so very common should not be rightly understood”. MWDEU counters that “evidence in the OED shows that the restriction has never existed in practice; the interchangeability of each other and one another had been established centuries before Ussher [in 1785] or somebody even earlier thought up the rule” and gives a pile of citations, from Samuel Johnson and Noah Webster to G. K. Chesterton and E. L. Doctorow. In summary:

We conclude that the rule restricting each other to two and one another to more than two was cut out of the whole cloth. There is no sin in its violation. It is, however, easy and painless to observe if you so wish.

My own practice prefers (but does not require) one of the reciprocals in some contexts, the other in others, for reasons that are not at all clear to me.

But this posting isn’t really about choosing which reciprocal to use. Instead, it’s about a non-reciprocal use of each other.

The context: a friend of mine sends me daily cards, many of which are print-outs of photos, often sexual in content. Recently he’s stumbled on a vein of pictures in which one naked guy has playfully picked up another naked guy; in some of them guy #2 is slung over over one of guy #1’s shoulders, in others, guy #2 is riding piggy-back or riding on guy #1’s shoulders. My friend described these photos as showing “naked guys picking each other up”.

Although the actions depicted are not in fact reciprocal — there is one picker-up and one picked-up, and they don’t exchange roles — I didn’t balk at this way of describing things.

There are, of course, other possibilities: for instance, “naked guys picking other naked guys up” (though this is longer) and “one naked guy picking another up” (this has the same number of words as my friend’s version, but is singular, while we’re talking about a number of pictures with a different picker-up in each one). I’m not saying that there’s anything unsatisfactory about these alternatives, only that they frame things in slightly different ways.

6 Responses to “each other”

  1. John Cowan Says:

    It seems to me that this is the usual semantics of each other in the presence of a generic subject, whether singular or plural in form. I have no trouble with Wolf spiders often eat each other, for example, or The Donner party ate one another’s corpses, though no relation could be more irreflexive than “X eats Y” (under the basic meaning of eat, anyhow), and corpses are obviously not capable of eating anything.

    (My apologies if these examples squick anybody; that’s one of the things linguists do to each other.)

  2. mollymooly Says:

    For me, “Wolf spiders often eat each other” works, but not “The Donner party ate one another’s corpses”. Maybe because the former is a general truth, postulating an infinite supply of spiders, while the latter is specific and finite.

  3. The Ridger Says:

    “They’re always shooting each other” seems to work, too.

  4. Neal Says:

    This paper from OSU’s SALT conference in February talked about precisely this issue, and had some interesting experimental results.

  5. Led astray by the no-split-infinitives fetish « Motivated Grammar Says:

    […] been intelligently discussed (attacked) in many other blogs, among them Arnold Zwicky’s discussion of each other and one another, Chris Potts’s succinct dismissal at Language Log, the truly […]

  6. Led astray by the no-split-infinitives fetish Says:

    […] been intelligently discussed (attacked) in many other blogs, among them Arnold Zwicky’s discussion of each other and one another, Chris Potts’s succinct dismissal at Language Log, the truly […]

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