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what's between between?
August 8, 2007 10:13 AM   Subscribe

Is there a default understanding the word "between," if the speaker/writer doesn't say whether he's being inclusive or exclusive? For instance, if I say "Pick a number between 1 and 10," would you assume that 1 and 10 are okay picks or just 2 through 9? I suspect there isn't a RIGHT answer, but is there a common, colloquial understanding?

I have Aspergers, and I get a feeling that this question would have an obvious answer to a "normal" person. But I'm so damn literal it has me stuck.

It came up today because, as NYCers know, the transit system is all screwed up. I'm on the 2 line, in Brooklyn, and I'd like to get to Atlantic Avenue (also on the 2 line). According to the MTA, " trains are suspended in both directions between the 34th Street-Penn Station and the Atlantic Avenue Station." So does that mean 2 trains are going TO Altantic and Penn but not between Atlantic and Penn? Or are the trains not even going to Atlantic and Penn?

I'm actually not all that worried about the train issue. That's just an example that came up today. My question is, is my confusion natural, or would a "normal" person just know what "between" means? And, if so, what DOES it mean?

Sometimes, when someone says "Pick a number between 1 and 10," I ask them if they mean INCLUDING 1 and 10. They tend to look at me strangely, as if I'd asked a really dumb, obvious question that I should know the answer to.
posted by grumblebee to Writing & Language (50 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
 
My instant reaction is inclusive. British English speaker.
posted by Abiezer at 10:18 AM on August 8, 2007


Between 1 and 10: Means 1 through 10.

Between my house and yours: Means a place roughly between the two houses, but not the houses themselves (or a place too close to either house.)

Between you and me: Only includes you and me.

It's contextual, and there's no fundamental rule of thumb.
posted by davejay at 10:19 AM on August 8, 2007 [4 favorites]


but is there a common, colloquial understanding?

Yes, most people would assume your 'pick a number' scenario to include 1 and 10.
posted by frobozz at 10:19 AM on August 8, 2007


People's consternation about the "1 and 10" issue is probably due to the fact that the scale 1-10 is a lot more "natural" than the scale 2-9.

On the other hand, with the MTA stuff, I'd guess that Atlantic and Penn are still serviced, as otherwise there would be two unnamed stations where service is still happening. On the other hand, I don't know. I'd certainly say that confusion is warranted in this case.
posted by TypographicalError at 10:19 AM on August 8, 2007


It's inclusive unless its obvious that its not.

"Pick a number between 1 and 10" means 1 and 10 included.

"The park is between the two buildings" obviously doesn't mean the park is inside the buildings as well.
posted by vacapinta at 10:20 AM on August 8, 2007


i would presume you mean "between 1 and 10 inclusive", even you never said the word "inclusive".

the trains thing is a little more complicated. generally, i would interpret the announcement as saying that no trains are travelling ebtween atlantic and penn inclusive. however, the nature of train lines means it is always possible that you could still approach the stations in question from another direction. that is, you could go to atlantic but not from the direction of penn, and vice versa. (i am unfamiliar with the NYC subway system, so i don't know if that is even possible).
posted by modernnomad at 10:21 AM on August 8, 2007


i think it probably depends on context (as far as i know, human parsing of language includes a lot of context). so "number between 1 and 10" is inclusive, but a physical position (like your stations) could easily be interpreted as exclusive because there's the implicit idea of being physically between (bracketed by) two things.
posted by andrew cooke at 10:22 AM on August 8, 2007


I'm suspecting you're right, davejay. I've been going over examples with my wife, and we agreed that "choose a space between the bookshelf and the sofa" does not include the bookshelf and the sofa, but "pick any day, between Monday and Friday, for the picnic" includes Monday and Friday.

The funny thing is, my wife, who doesn't have Aspergers, felt she had an intuitive understanding of this until we started dissecting it.

I wonder if, often, when people say "between," the meaning is fuzzy but the fuzziness doesn't matter. If I say, "Pick a number between 1 and 100," I may mean exclusive but you may think I mean inclusive. Yet if you pick 57, we'll be none the wiser about our differing definitions.
posted by grumblebee at 10:23 AM on August 8, 2007 [1 favorite]


Another vote for generally inclusive.

When a web form asks your age, they have categories like 18 to 30, 31 to 45, etc. The end numbers are meant to be included in their respective categories.
posted by desjardins at 10:23 AM on August 8, 2007


Just to pick nits, desjardins, I think there's a subtle difference (or there can be) between "to" (or "through") and "between."

I find "18 to 30" unambiguously inclusive.
posted by grumblebee at 10:26 AM on August 8, 2007


also, as a programmer, you may be more sensitive to/confused by this distinction because it is critical for loops/arrays. so it's something you are conditioned to "think about" - something for which you have learnt to distrust any acquired instinct from normal social use.
posted by andrew cooke at 10:28 AM on August 8, 2007


Funny. Years ago, to protect myself from this very scenario I started using the construct "From one to ten." On the odd chance I would slip and say "between" I always added the word "inclusive."

I don't believe I have Asperger's but this has been on my mental radar repeatedly. Perhaps we should start a support group.
posted by sourwookie at 10:29 AM on August 8, 2007


You're right, andrew cooke. I'm very used to thinking carefully about "less than" vs. "less than or equal to."
posted by grumblebee at 10:29 AM on August 8, 2007


As a database guy, I get asked this all of the time because BETWEEN is a SQL keyword. So its not that obvious to most people, developers at least.

and yes, its inclusive in SQL
posted by neilkod at 10:30 AM on August 8, 2007


Echoing the others who would assume you mean it inclusively, but it's interesting to think about the other instances of the word "between" which aren't inclusive.

I appreciate you asking this question, grumblebee. My son has Asperger's, and I like being able to read things that help give insight into his "very literal" way of thinking.
posted by amyms at 10:31 AM on August 8, 2007


I find "18 to 30" unambiguously inclusive.

Oh yeah. What about "5th avenue is closed from 23rd to 24th st."?

Unsurprisingly, 23rd is completely open but its the segment of 5th that connects 23rd to 24th that is closed. So...exclusive.

As others have said, you have to look at context.
posted by vacapinta at 10:32 AM on August 8, 2007


"Pick a number between 1 and 10," suggests inclusive to me.

"There are no trains running between 34th and Atlantic," suggests that you can take a downtown train to 34th, but then you have to walk.* Which is an exclusive definition.

The strict language of "between" says exclusive to me. The numbers between 1 and 10 are 2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9. So if I were to give you a rule to follow, I'd say assume that "between" excludes the boundaries, except in the special case of picking a number between two boundaries.

* I'm also a New Yorker, also heard that announcement, got the train to 34th and started walking.
posted by Maastrictian at 10:32 AM on August 8, 2007


Interesting question ... as a lawyer I make a point of drafting legal obligations which are clear. The mere fact that between could be interpreted in 2 different ways means I would consider it "possibly exclusive" and would clarify or use an alternate turn of phrase.

However in normal conversational usage between 1 and 10 I would be inclusive, and between two stations would be exclusive ... to my mind.

another example would be "within 10 days" ... exclusive or inclusive ... in a contract I would write "on or before the 10th day following"

my 2c

J
posted by jannw at 10:33 AM on August 8, 2007


Perhaps we should start a support group.

called Between You And Me.

I also am really careful about this -- probably to an absurd extent -- when I'm writing. And I don't like the words "inclusive" and "exclusive," because my mind doesn't instantly grasp what they mean. So I tend to write things like, "Pick a number between one and ten, including one and ten." But I always feel like my readers are doing a collective eye-roll at my excessive need to be exact. (Which is probably just ego. I doubt my readers care that much.)
posted by grumblebee at 10:33 AM on August 8, 2007 [2 favorites]


My response is essentially the same as sourwookie's. If someone says to me "Between 1 and 10", and they mean "inclusive", but they don't say "inclusive", I secretly think at them: "YOU ARE A GOD DAMNED ASS".

I can't imagine this response is all that common, though. Most people probably assume it's inclusive.
posted by Greg Nog at 10:45 AM on August 8, 2007 [1 favorite]


I think people generally assume that it's inclusive (that "between 1 and 10" would include 1 and to). However, as a computer programmer, I totally sympathize with you - I often find myself wondering the same thing. However, this is one of those situations where I think that I just have to accept that most people don't think the way that I do.
posted by Afroblanco at 10:46 AM on August 8, 2007


I think I'd agree with Maastriction that, generally, between is exclusive, except when picking numbers or dates. As grumblebee himself points out, 'between Monday and Friday' is inclusive. I would believe 'between the 1st and the 15th of this month' to be inclusive as well. But 'between the two train stations' means exactly what it says, and excludes the stations themselves.

I think it has to do with natural start and ends of ranges.

'Between you and me' could, in a sense, also be considered exclusive, because the communication is supposed to happen only in the physical space between the two of you. But it's more metaphoric.

I think the reason SQL 'BETWEEN' is inclusive is because there's otherwise not a need for it.... a paired greater and less than would be the exact same thing if it weren't.
posted by Malor at 10:53 AM on August 8, 2007


I think I'd agree with Maastriction that, generally, between is exclusive, except when picking numbers or dates. As grumblebee himself points out, 'between Monday and Friday' is inclusive. I would believe 'between the 1st and the 15th of this month' to be inclusive as well.

That is, its inclusive for discrete objects but exclusive when it actually means the continuous space (i.e. train tracks) between objects or things.
posted by vacapinta at 11:03 AM on August 8, 2007 [1 favorite]


It's inclusive. The question, "Pick a number between 1 and 10." does not tell very much. Most of the assumptions are implied. When someone asks the question, they are asking for you to choose a whole number from the set 1≤x≥10.
posted by JJ86 at 11:08 AM on August 8, 2007


That's an even better definition, vacapinta.
posted by Malor at 11:09 AM on August 8, 2007


I think vacapinta's got the closest breakdown--it's an analog vs digital thing.

The one that gets the oddest is probably ages. 12-18 may sometimes mean from the moment you turn 12 to the moment you turn 18 (mixed inclusive of 12 / exclusive of 18), or the moment you turn 12 to the moment you turn 19 (inclusive of both). But it'll never mean the moment you turn 13 to the moment you turn 18 (exclusive of both).
posted by jacquilynne at 11:12 AM on August 8, 2007


Taking statements like this completely literally has lead to some confusion in school for me with instructions such as "Read from chapter 1 to chapter 3." I usually asked for clarification and grokked pretty early that with number sets, questions & reading assigned people usually meant inclusive.

Fortunately my continued literal mindedness has lead to few actual problems and mostly just bad jokes.

eg:
"Is this like a test?"
"Yes."
"So it's not actually a test then?"

"Are you thinking about staying in town or moving away?"
"Yes."

Maybe I should take up programming?
posted by ODiV at 11:13 AM on August 8, 2007


Wow. How did I completely fail to answer the question there? What I meant to say was that you need to suppress the urge to take everyone completely literally and either take a guess at what they were trying to say or ask them straight out. The more you do this, the less you will need to ask as your experience will fill in the gaps.

On post: vacapinta has it for all cases I can think of off the top of my head, but it might be difficult to go around making hard and fast rules like this to remember.

Or does Aspergers have something to do with that? Is it easier to make set rules than to rely on intuition + experience?
posted by ODiV at 11:19 AM on August 8, 2007


I get stuck on this one too. It seems like between should be exclusive as in, 'it is in between'. But it is often used inclusively. I can get pretty hung up on being accurate, so when I want to convey inclusive I say 'from X to Y'.

Sometimes the person speaking has no idea what they intend. Occasionally instead of asking someone to pick a number from 1 to 100 they will say 0 to 100. If you pick 0 they tell you, "No, inbetween.", "So I can't pick 100?", "You can pick 100.". ?!?

My hunch in these situations is usually wrong. With the numbers I want to say exclusive and the trains inclusive; common consensus is the opposite. What really hooks me with the train example is that if trains are going to those two stations then traffic isn't suspended in both directions from there. I can just see myself getting off a stop before 34th and then wondering as the train pulls away, "Where are all those people going?".
posted by BigSky at 11:23 AM on August 8, 2007


Yes, inclusive would be my assumption.

Incidentally: the MTA is not good at making itself clear, regardless of whether you have Aspergers or not. I can never figure out what "the E train is running on the 6 line" (or whatever) is supposed to mean. Surely a train that runs on the 6 line is the 6 train, by definition?
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 11:23 AM on August 8, 2007


Sometimes, when someone says "Pick a number between 1 and 10," I ask them if they mean INCLUDING 1 and 10. They tend to look at me strangely, as if I'd asked a really dumb, obvious question that I should know the answer to.

I think inclusive is the default meaning.

Also, always pick 7 if you want to win. (and if you just want to fuck with the person pick Pi)
posted by Bonzai at 11:26 AM on August 8, 2007


I am surprised how many people assume inclusivity (and am getting worried about whether I have Asbergers).

Assuming that you're limiting choices to integers* then to my mind "between 1 and 10" means 2 to 9 (inclusive) whilew "from 1 to 10" has all ten numbers available.

* and now I'm really worried
posted by Lionel d'Lion at 11:35 AM on August 8, 2007


Chose an integer between 1 and 2. What's that, you can't?
posted by blue_beetle at 11:35 AM on August 8, 2007


Chose an integer between 1 and 2. What's that, you can't?

That's an interesting example. Like most people here, my gut tells me that when people say, "between 1 and 10," they probably mean you should include 1 and 10. The 1 and 2 example makes my brain freeze up. It doesn't want to apply the same logic. I think it just balks and the word "between" used to express a range of just two consecutive integers. I really want you to say "pick 1 or 2."
posted by grumblebee at 11:44 AM on August 8, 2007


That should have been "I think it just balks AT the word 'between' used to express a range of just two consecutive integers."
posted by grumblebee at 11:50 AM on August 8, 2007


I hope this doesn't confuse you further, but sometimes in practice "between one and ten" actually will be the same as "two through nine" because nobody will pick one or ten.

Magicians--especially mentalists-- have exploited this for years. Spread out four objects and ask someone to pick one, and 85% of the time it'll be the second or third object. (And almost always the third.)

Ask someone to name a number between one and ten, and you'll consistently get seven or occasionally three, but you'll never get one or ten.

One effect I do involves "building" a card with four volunteers. The first is asked to name a number between one and thirteen and the second is asked to choose between black and red. The third picks a suit based on the chosen color. We then put it all together and we have our card; for example, twelve + black + clubs = the queen of clubs. I explain that when we started, nobody knew we were building a card together, so in the spirit of fairness, the fourth volunteer is allowed to just throw everything out the window and straight-up name a card. After the card is named, an envelope that's been on the table the entire time is opened, and I reveal that my hurf durf psychic powers have influenced all of their choices from the very beginning: the named card is inside. Ta-da, motherfuckers!

The explanation is almost identical to the effect: there's no sleight of hand--I don't touch the envelope at all--I just have a target card I'm shooting for, and I'm able to force it almost (almost!) every time. Just replace "psychic powers" with "NLP, body language, vocal cues, and the sick urge to spend ten years humiliating myself onstage over and over again until I got it right."

My point is this: even if the volunteers don't exactly get the target card, I have a few "outs" that allow me a little wiggle room to salvage the effect...UNLESS the first volunteer says "one" or "thirteen," in which case I'm screwed and can only pray the fourth volunteer throws everything out the window and just makes up a new card.

However, in practice, this NEVER NEVER EVER happens. Thirteen comes up maybe once every 150 performances or so, and I don't think I've once, in ten years of presenting the effect, had someone say "one."

(I've always told myself that if I ever get a "one," that person will be so unique that I'll either need to marry them or run for my life.)
posted by Ian A.T. at 11:58 AM on August 8, 2007 [7 favorites]


What I meant to say was that you need to suppress the urge to take everyone completely literally and either take a guess at what they were trying to say or ask them straight out.

I ask all the time, but I'm not into the guessing part. I'm not crazy or totally stubborn, so in an emergency, I'll guess. (If someone says, "My head is KILLING me. Please get me an Advil," I won't freeze up if the drugstore only has Tylenol.")

But I find that my habit of questioning makes me work in a very different way from many of my co-workers. I see this sort of interchange between them all the time:

A: Please fill out the bottom half of report X.
B: [one hour later] here you go.
A: Wait. When I said the bottom half, I meant the bottom half of both sides of the sheet of paper!
B: Oh. Sorry. I'll get it back to you.

[Twenty minutes later.]

B: Here you are.
A: Thanks.

Whereas, with me, it tends to go like this:

A: Please fill out the bottom half of report X.
ME: When you say the bottom half, do you mean everything from the green line down or literally the bottom half?
A: From the green line down.
ME: And do you mean on just the first side of the page or on both sides?
A: Both sides.
ME: Ok. Thanks.

[One hour later.]

ME: here you are.
A: Thanks.

I'm not sure either way is more efficient. Most people seem pretty comfortable with the take-a-stab-at-it, get a correction, take-another-stab-at-it approach. I'm not. I like to know exactly what the assignment is before I start and then to do it. And I get irritated if I have to go back and redo part when I could have done it right the first time if the assigner had been clearer (or, to be fair, if I was less literal minded).

I continually get emails that are filled with ambiguous words: "Please take the thing to her and have her put it in the other thing." In my experience, most people aren't that much better at interpreting it than I am, but they're more willing to guess. They often guess wrong and go into a cycle of corrections and new guesses. And they don't seem to mind this -- this sort of improvisational way of groping towards a solution. But it drives me batshit. I write back and ask what both things are and who she is.
posted by grumblebee at 12:03 PM on August 8, 2007 [1 favorite]


I like vacapinta's definition; I think that's almost always right for everyday stuff. But in technical documentation, or when talking to a programmer or mathematician or whatnot, I'd assume "between" might be exclusive even for discrete stuff, and ask for clarification, because I've seen it both ways.

As for picking numbers, I always say "pick a number from X to Y", for exactly this reason. I wish there was an actual convention, but I don't think there is one.
posted by equalpants at 12:03 PM on August 8, 2007


After thinking about it, here's a refined version of vacapinta's definition:

Between is almost always inclusive when choosing 'between' objects of the same type. If the 'between' area or objects are different, it means only those.
posted by Malor at 12:06 PM on August 8, 2007


I hope this doesn't confuse you further, but sometimes in practice "between one and ten" actually will be the same as "two through nine" because nobody will pick one or ten.

That's really funny, because I have a habit (when I'm sure the person means 1-10 inclusive) of choosing 1. I'll admit that this isn't my natural inclination, but I've done it for so long, it's starting to become my natural inclination. When someone asks me to randomly pick between a bunch of items, one pick is as good as another, so what's the point of expending mental energy on it. I just pick the first one. Always.

Every once in a while, I fantasize about being on that show "Deal or No Deal." People have to choose random briefcases. They tend to choose all over the range, in crazy orders. If there are 30 cases, their first pick will be 17, then 5, then 28... I would just pick 1, then 2, then 3.... I can't see a problem with my "strategy," but I realize it would be considered odd. (I also realize this is because many people have supernatural beliefs about numbers, but I'm not talking about that. I think even many people who realize it's pure chance would feel odd about picking the cases in consecutive order. It used to feel odd to me too. But, as I said, it feels less and less so as the years go on.)
posted by grumblebee at 12:11 PM on August 8, 2007


Examples of above: between two houses is exclusive, because the area in the middle is not necessarily houses.

Area between train stations is exclusive, because it's tracks, not stations.

Choosing between 1 and 10 is inclusive, because all the objects are numbers.

Choosing between two prizes is inclusive because they are both prizes.
posted by Malor at 12:12 PM on August 8, 2007


Between is almost always inclusive when choosing 'between' objects of the same type.

Not sure I get this. "Pick one of the people between Mark and Jenny" would not -- to me -- include Mark or Jenny, even though we're talking about objects of the same type (people).

I think, as a few folks have pointed out, "between" is usual exclusive when talking about space (e.g. the space between two people doesn't include the two people.)
posted by grumblebee at 12:15 PM on August 8, 2007


Every once in a while, I fantasize about being on that show "Deal or No Deal." ...

Unfortunately, I'm highly suspicious of the premise that the cases are assigned randomly. There is surely a producer backstage who is swapping around locations and things. Humans tend to not like random assignments, as they look more nonrandom than the terribly patterned "randomness" that people create.

In that case, you need to play to the prejudices of the producer, which among other things means that a strategy of simply choosing the boxes in order is suboptimal.
posted by TypographicalError at 1:27 PM on August 8, 2007


To possibly add a further confusion point (sorry) -
In a similar case where the announcement was "there are no flights between Dallas and Denver," that would mean to me that I couldn't fly from Dallas to Denver, or from Denver to Dallas. It would not mean I couldn't fly from Dallas to somewhere else, and then to Denver. If that's what the speaker meant, I would assume they would use stronger language, such as "You cannot get to Denver today," or "Dallas and Denver are closed."

In the original scenario, I would think I could ride the train normally in the Atlantic direction up to Penn, but then have to get off at Penn. Otherwise, the announcement would have specifically said Penn and Atlantic were closed as well.
posted by ctmf at 1:29 PM on August 8, 2007


One more vote for vacapinta's rule. Before I got that far in the thread I was thinking "If you can touch it, it's exclusive, otherwise inclusive." And another reassurance that it's not just you. Dealing with fencepost, edge-cases and off-by-one's all day makes you really stop and think when similar concepts come up in daily life. I'm already ridiculous about parentheses in real life, and I'm not even a LISPer.

I'm also going to start guessing 'one' a lot more now
posted by Skorgu at 1:53 PM on August 8, 2007


(I've always told myself that if I ever get a "one," that person will be so unique that I'll either need to marry them or run for my life.)

So your choices are between marrying them and running for your life?

I'm not sure either way is more efficient. Most people seem pretty comfortable with the take-a-stab-at-it, get a correction, take-another-stab-at-it approach. I'm not.

That's not an Asperger's thing (or at least not limited to it), for what it's worth; I used to be comfortable with ambiguity, and still am in my personal life, but over time I got fed up with the ridiculous amounts of wasted time and repetitive effort caused by ambiguity, and now I insist on reasonable details before I proceed.

Incidentally, the greatest designer I ever worked with (I'm a web developer) had the right idea on how to leverage ambiguity against specificity. Whenever I looked at his designs and thought "oh, he forgot to say what to do here", I'd ping him and have one of the following conversations:

Me: What do you want to do here?
Him: Do this very specific thing, sorry I forgot to call it out.

Me: What do you want to do here?
Him: Whatever you think is best.

This worked well, with no wasted time or repetitive effort, because the problem isn't ambiguity itself; it's ambiguity in situations where the end results actually do matter to someone. So the real issue is that someone needs a specific result, but does not provide those specifics up front. Whereas my designer buddy, when he said "whatever you think is best" meant it.
posted by davejay at 3:53 PM on August 8, 2007


in short, ambiguity is not bad; laziness is, when laziness leads to ambiguity followed by the need for specificity.
posted by davejay at 3:54 PM on August 8, 2007 [1 favorite]


Semi-related to grumblebee's question (I hope it's okay to add to this thread):

Expiration dates are confusing. If, say, a coupon expires on 1 August, can it still be used on that day? Or is 31 July the last day it can be used, since the coupon "expires" (dies, ceases to be useful is how I think about it) the next day?

[It is a huge relief to know I'm not the only person who overthinks stuff like this.]
posted by splendid animal at 4:06 PM on August 8, 2007


Talking this over with my girlfriend last night, we came up with a different rule that I think works pretty well.

Items with a natural and universally understood order use between in an inclusive sense. "Between 1 and 10" is 1,2,3,4... "Between A and L" is A, B, C, D, E... "Between March 1st and March 15th" is March 1, 2, 3, ....

Items without a naturally and universally understood order user between in an exclusive sense *because you are using the named items to specify the boundary.* "Between Jane and Mary" is all the people standing between them but not including them.

We figure this is because, when there is a universally understood ordering, the speaker can assume that the listener will be able to describe the group outside the boundary. So if a place is closed between March 1st and March 15th then the listener knows that he can arrive safely on March 16th.

But maybe we are crazy...
posted by Maastrictian at 7:01 AM on August 9, 2007


Expiration dates are confusing.

I get confused by these, too- I can never remember if my Metrocard is still good on the day it "expires". But generally, I think what is meant is that the expiration date is the last day it can be used, even if the writing is unclear.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 8:15 AM on August 9, 2007 [1 favorite]


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