Note: A post on March 4, 2013, reflects our updated views on “each other” and “one another.”
Q: I have a question that has bothered me for years. I was taught English in Paris by a French teacher educated at Oxford. If I remember correctly, the phrase “each other” is supposed to be used for two people (i.e., Jane and John love each other) and the phrase “one another” should be used when more than two people are involved (i.e., the teacher and her students love one another). That’s the way I have used those phrases, but no one else does. Am I right or wrong? Thank you for caring for our language. It is massacred by too many!
A: It’s a traditional belief that “each other” should be used to discuss two people or entities and “one another” to discuss more than two. Speaking about two children, you’d say, “They shared with each other.” Speaking of three or more, you’d say, “They shared with one another.”
Certainly there’s nothing wrong with following that tradition in your own speech and writing.
But it’s long been common practice to refer to two with “one another,” as in “Husband and wife should love one another.” And I see nothing wrong with this.
Using “each other” in reference to three or more, though, would be unacceptable to most usage experts. Frankly, it sounds off-kilter to me.
You should know, however, that many sources, including The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), have relaxed the old distinction between “each other” and “one another.” And that relaxation no doubt reflects the way these expressions are increasingly being used.
I hope this helps. Short answer: you’re right and your teacher’s right.