English English language Etymology Grammar Phrase origin Usage

“Each other” vs. “one another”

Q: Some good writers use “each other” and “one another” interchangeably, while others use them in distinctly different ways. What are your thoughts?

A: These terms are interchangeable, despite a common belief that “each other” is properly used in reference to two people or things, and “one another” for more than two. In fact, we’re revising our own thinking on this one.

In a 2006 posting, we said it was OK to use “one another” in either case. But we didn’t go far enough. We said most usage experts would object to using “each other” for three or more, though we acknowledged that the distinction was being relaxed,

Seven years later, our opinion has changed. The old distinction isn’t worth preserving—even for “each other”—and it wasn’t valid in the first place.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage explains that “the prescriptive rule that each other is to be restricted to two and one another to more than two” can be traced to a 1785 grammar book written by George N. Ussher. But it notes that there’s no foundation for such a rule.

Evidence in the Oxford English Dictionary shows “that the restriction has never existed in practice,” the M-W editors write, adding:

“The interchangeability of each other and one another had been established centuries before Ussher or somebody even earlier thought up the rule.”

The usage guide concludes that the restriction is a mere invention (or, as M-W puts it, “was cut out of the whole cloth”) and “there is no sin in its violation.”

The OED’s entries for the expressions confirm this. The dictionary says “each other” means the same thing as “one another.” And it defines “one another” as a “compound reciprocal pronoun” referring to “two or more.”

R. W. Burchfield, the author of Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.), agrees that the traditional restriction isn’t valid:

“The belief is untenable,” Burchfield writes. He goes on to quote many respected writers who use “one another” for two and “each other” for three or more.

Standard dictionaries also recognize the terms as interchangeable.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) says the distinction between the two “is often ignored without causing confusion and should be regarded more as a stylistic preference than a norm of Standard English.”

Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged, says “each other” means “each of two or more in reciprocal action or relation.” And “one another,” the dictionary says, means “each other.”

In short, this is an issue of style rather than correctness. There’s no harm in following that “traditional” rule if you like, but there’s no harm in ignoring it either.

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