Episode 207: February 4, 2010
by Mignon Fogarty
Today we're going to talk about the difference between the words “between” and “among.”
Between Versus Among
You may have noticed that I said we were going to talk about the difference between the words “between” and “among.” I used the word “between” because I was talking about a choice that involves two distinct words.
Many people believe “between” should be used for choices involving two items and “among” for choices that involve more than two items. That can get you to the right answer some of the time, but it's not that simple (1, 2, 3, 4).
Here's the deal: you can use the word “between” when you are talking about distinct, individual items even if there are more than two of them. For example, you could say, "She chose between Harvard, Brown, and Yale" because the colleges are individual items.
The Chicago Manual of Style describes these as one-to-one relationships. Sometimes they are between two items, groups, or people, as in these sentences:
Choose between Squiggly and Aardvark.
Let's keep this between you and me.
Other times they can be between more than two items, groups, or people as in these sentences:
The negotiations between the cheerleaders, the dance squad, and the flag team were going well despite the confetti incident.
The differences between English, Chinese, and Arabic are significant.
On the other hand, you use “among” when you are talking about things that aren't distinct items or individuals; for example, if you were talking about colleges collectively you could say, "She chose among the Ivy League schools."
If you are talking about a group of people, you also use “among”:
Fear spread among the hostages.
The scandal caused a division among the fans.
Squiggly and Aardvark are among the residents featured in the newsletter.
Part of a Group
“Among” can also indicate that someone is part of a group or left out of a group, as in these examples:
He was glad to find a friend among enemies.
She felt like a stranger among friends.
Sylvia was later found living among the natives.
It's not as simple as using between for two things and among for more.
“Between” and “among” can also tell the reader different things about location or direction. Think about the difference between these two sentences:
Squiggly walked between the trees.
Squiggly walked among the trees.
“Squiggly walked between the trees” gives you the idea that he stayed on the path; he either walked between two trees or was on a route that was surrounded by trees.
On the other hand, “Squiggly walked among the trees” gives you the idea that he wandered around a park or forest. He may have had an endpoint in mind, but it doesn't sound as if he went from point A to point B on a defined path.
“Among” Versus “Amongst”
Finally, people sometimes ask about the difference between “among” and “amongst.” Both words mean the same thing, but “amongst” is the older form and is more commonly used in Britain than in the United States. It's considered archaic and overly formal or even pretentious in American English (5). The only time I can think of when it would be appropriate for an American writer to use it would be in fiction set in a different era or world. Something like:
Is it truly safe to walk amongst the peasants, my lord?
Dear listeners, I hope this trifling is amongst your favorites for the week.
1. Goldstein, N., ed. The Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual. Reading: Perseus Books, 1998, p. 12.
2. The American Heritage College Dictionary. Third edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993, p. 132.
3. Burchfield, R.W., ed. The New Fowler's Modern English Usage. Third edition. New York: Oxford, 1996, p. 106.
4. Scharton, M., and Neuleib, J. Things Your Grammar Never Told You. New York: Longman, 2001, p. 61.
5. Garner, B. Garner's Modern American Usage, 3rd Edition. Oxford University Press, 2009, p. 42.
Web Bonus for Teachers
Choose the correct word. If you choose “either,” explain the different meanings you get when you use each word.
1. Gloria had to choose [between/among/either] band practice and writing for the newspaper.
2. The conversation [between/among/either] the teachers, the parents, and the students lasted for two hours.
3. She found her change [between/among/either] the cushions.
[Answer: either, but “between” indicates the coins were between two cushions, which is the more likely scenario, whereas “among” indicates the coins were in a pile of cushions.]
4. James was [between/among/either] the winners.
[Answer: either, but “between” indicates he was standing between two winners, whereas “among” indicates he was either one of the winner or in the midst of some winners.]
5. Gail and Dave are [between/among/either] the vacationers enjoying ice cream.
[Answer: either, but “between” indicates they are situated between two vacationers or groups of vacationers who are enjoying ice cream, whereas “among” indicates they are either enjoying ice cream themselves or are in the midst of a group of vacationers who are enjoying ice cream.]
6. Herbert is notorious [between/among/either] the locals.
7. The orchestra members talked [between/among/either] themselves.