Grammar Gremlins: Both vs. Each

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We both went to the conference. We each went to the conference..

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I hear a difference between both and each, but the other day I wondered about the technical distinction between them. Is there a grammatical rule, or just a shade of meaning?

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It took most of my reference collection to find a succinct answer. Several books don’t mention either word. Others have fairly substantial lists of the ways both can be misused. The only one that deals with my curiosity about both and each is Morton S. Freeman’s The Wordwatcher’s Guide to Good Writing and Grammar. This is why I keep so many books. (Well, that and the fact that I don’t know of a twelve step program for bookaholics.)

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According to Freeman, both means “two considered together.” Jane and I both went to a workshop at three implies that Jane and I went to that workshop together, or at least that we went to the same workshop. Jane and I each went to a workshop at three says that we parted company and went to separate workshops.

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Freeman points out that Both women wore a straw hat would require an extremely large hat. Better to say either Each woman wore a straw hat or Both women wore straw hats.

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As the subject of a sentence, both is plural (although it should never refer to more than two) and each is singular. Both of the writers are going to a workshop, but Each of the writers is going to a workshop.

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In short, both of these words can be confused or misused, but each of them serves a distinct purpose.

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Bonus points: In standard usage, each other refers to two people (or objects), while one another refers to more than two. My friend and I read each other’s manuscripts, while Five of us critique one another’s writing.

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As always, in dialog all bets are off. Your characters can speak as correctly or as colloquially (I definitely needed spell check for that one!) as you feel appropriate for them.

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