Between vs. In Between

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A reader wants to know how between and in between differ in usage:

Please explain the usage of the term “in between.” It’s been many years since I heard anyone say this. I always thought it was unnecessary to combine the words “in” and “between”. What’s the difference if you say that one thing is between another thing as opposed to saying that it’s “in between”?

When between functions as a preposition, placing in before it is nonstandard usage. The following headlines, for example, are incorrect:

Incorrect: Woman dies walking in between subway cars
Correct : Woman dies walking between subway cars

Incorrect: You don’t need to enter spaces in-between the numbers/letters.
Correct : You don’t need to enter spaces between the numbers/letters.

Incorrect: How Many Hurdles are In Between a Thief and Your Phone Data?
Correct : How Many Hurdles are Between a Thief and Your Phone Data?

The addition of in is acceptable when the phrase “in between” functions as a noun or an adjective.

1. In-between as noun

Josie feels like an in-between, trapped between her family’s Italian culture and the Australian culture of her peers. (noun meaning, “a person who doesn’t belong in either of two groups”)

Many times, parents feel like the only choice is to have [the baby] fall asleep in your arms or cry it out, but there really is an in-between. (noun meaning, “an alternative that lies between two extremes”)

2. In-between as adjective

An “in-between hop” is a baseball term that indicates a bounced baseball that reaches an infielder at the midpoint of its upward bounce. (adjective describing hop)

College students on holiday face an in-between world. (adjective describing world)

Bottom line: When using between as a preposition, don’t preface it with in.

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6 thoughts on “Between vs. In Between”

  1. This topic reminds me of a common problem with “between” as it appears in phrases like “keep twelve inches between each seat”. Logic dictates that you can only put something between two things, so it ought to be “keep twelve inches between each pair of seats”. Maybe that’s just oral language being lazy.

  2. Hm. At first I saw the title of this post in my in-box, and I thought, “Is there something I don’t know about this? What’s the big deal here?” After reading the post, I see your point. However, I’m wondering if using “in” is a regionalism. I’m from NYC originally and your examples of incorrect usage of “in” do not sound harsh to my ear, and in fact I would probably use the word “in” in some of these cases, and in others. Not so much the subway-car example (and yes, I used to walk between subway cars), but the others. So…maybe can we have a show of hands here, is there anybody else from the northeast to whom “in between” doesn’t sound odd?

  3. It doesn’t sound odd, usually, to me but that is simply an artifact of it being common. I probably don’t notice a lot of the time when people use their as a singular, or broke when they should say broken, either. Something can be common and wrong. The reasoning behind those “in betweens” being in correct make sense.

  4. @venqax: I see your point about not sounding odd when something is so common. However, even if everyone started saying “broke” instead of “broken” (“His toy is broke”), it would still grate on my ear and annoy me. I notice the it/their construction all the time, but have come to use it myself at times in more casual conversation when I’m not thinking too far ahead. In professional conversation or correspondence, I will re-cast the sentence as needed to avoid that problem. If I were a salmon I would probably swim downstream LOL

  5. Peter van den Bosch – There is a difference between the two different examples you provide. They do not mean the same thing.

    “between” as it appears in phrases like “keep twelve inches between each seat” This means 12 inches between a first seat and a second seat.

    “keep twelve inches between each pair of seats” This means keep 12 inches between one pair of seats and another pair of seats.

  6. Isn’t “in between” an idiom that means something distinct from between? As in “the east coast, the west coast, and all large cities in between.” Is it an adjectival phrase in this case?

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