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'Between' Versus 'Among'

The traditional rule you may have learned about between and among is a myth.

By
Mignon Fogarty,
May 12, 2016
Episode #516

Today we're going to talk about the difference between the words between and among.

You may have noticed that I said we are 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, 5). 

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 things. 

Relationships

The Chicago Manual of Style describes these as one-to-one relationships. Sometimes they are between two items, groups, or people, as in these examples:

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 examples:

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. 

Location

Between and among can also tell the reader different things about location or direction. Think about the difference between these two examples:

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 more of an 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.

References

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. “among,” Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/amongst (accessed May 11, 2016).

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.
[Answer: between]

2. The conversation [between/among/either] the teachers, the parents, and the students lasted for two hours.
[Answer: between]

3. 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.]

4. 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.]

5. Herbert is notorious [between/among/either] the locals.
[Answer: among]

6. The orchestra members talked [between/among/either] themselves.
[Answer: among]

Boy and Two Dogs image from Shutterstock

This article was originally published February 4, 2010 and updated May 12, 2016.

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