Usable Usage: Confronting Between and Of

by Erin Brenner on July 14, 2011

Recently a reader asked me which preposition should be used with the term confrontation. Is it a confrontation between John and Steve or a confrontation of John and Steve? The reader noted that between seemed more accepted but of suggested “something more general,” giving the confrontation “somewhat of a historical significance.”

I checked several resources—dictionaries, usage guides, style manuals, and the like— for a considered opinion and came up empty-handed. So I did some primary research.

Confrontation between yielded almost 1,000 results on Google News, while confrontation of yield only about 80 results.

In a search in the Corpus of Contemporary American English, a collection of 425 million words from speeches, fiction, newspapers, magazines, and academia from 1990 to the present, a search on confrontation between returned 460 results, while confrontation of returned 129.

Finally, I created a Book Ngram that shows how much more common between has become over the years:

Confrontation of spiked about a century ago, but confrontation between has overtaken it today.

Judging from this research, between is by far the more common choice, with of appearing more than rarely. Two examples of confrontation of that sounded right to my ear:

This new confrontation of resistible force and movable objects, the boys and the girls, soon sought resolution and the two groups broke up with a slow disentangling, the other two girls leaving the one with her bicycle, calling back to her over their shoulders obscure appointments and instructions. —Review of Contemporary Fiction, Spring 2007

The possible confrontation of a super state and an international institution leads to the thorny problem and concept of state sovereignty. —Humanist, March–April 2007

In informal text, then, most readers probably won’t notice if you say confrontation of instead of confrontation between. But in formal text, your best bet is to use confrontation between.

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