Word Confusion: Among versus Between

Posted January 6, 2013 by Kathy Davie in Author Resources, Editing, Self-Editing, Word Confusions, Writing

I was doing some research on grammar and came across this interesting (well, it is interesting to me!) caution on when it was proper to use among and when to use between.

The traditionalist rule — that among is only for three or more while between is strictly between two — is considered a zombie rule. I suspect this rule came about because it was easier for people to grasp actual numbers than have to analyze the relationships between? amongst? the parties. Hmmm, that’s one way to sidestep it!

The Zombie Rule of Among vs Between

Expanding upon this “zombie rule“:

  • Between refers to a one-to-one (or one-to-four, or one-to-ten or…) relationship in which all participants share a common something.
  • Among refers to a vague relationship (think collective noun) that is not a one-to-one connection.

English. What’cha gonna do?

Exceptions
Sometimes it sounds weird to use among even though it is grammatically correct. There is an exception when there is activity going on between each pair of participants.
Among Between
The treaty was signed in 1945 among the United States, England, France, and Russia.

Technically correct, except that it sounds weird.

I think it sounds like they’re about to play footie!

The treaty was signed in 1945 between the United States, England, France, and Russia.

This is more acceptable.

The justification is that the treaty was an action between each pair: England and France, England and Russia, France and Russia, the U.S. and Russia, the U.S. and England, etc.

The treaty was signed by England, the United States, France, and Russia.

Or, you could simply rewrite it.

Just among ourselves…

Suggests a group of three or more people. Certainly more than you and me!

Just between you and me…

This is a one-to-one relationship of a pair.

We lived in Spain among 1998 and 2004.

Uhhh, I’m not sure how one can live among years…

We lived in Spain between 1998 and 2004.

Okay, two or more people lived in Spain for six years.

Among you, me, and the lamppost, I think he’s full of himself.

For one thing, this sounds stupid.

Between you, me, and the lamppost, I think he’s full of himself.

This is a specific relationship with a common “cause”: himself.

Word Confusions…

…started as my way of dealing with a professional frustration with properly spelled words that were out of context in manuscripts I was editing as well as books I was reviewing. It evolved into a sharing of information with y’all. I’m hoping you’ll share with us words that have been a bête noir for you from either end. Consider sharing this Word Confusion with friends by tweeting it

Among Between
Credit to: Apple Dictionary.com, Burckmyer, 64; Erin Brenner

Image courtesy of Fox Sports

Darren Lockyer be may on top of his teammates, but he’s definitely among them


Image is Patisserie’s own work [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Who knew sheep fighting between two rams could be a national game?

Part of Grammar:
Preposition Adverb; Preposition
The easy rule is “when referring to three or more or a crowd”.

The expanded rule refers to a collective relationship which is unspecific.


Surrounded by

In the company of

Being a member or members of (a larger set)

Occurring in or practiced by (some members of a community)

  • Involving most or all members of a group reciprocally

Indicating a division, choice, or differentiation involving three or more participants

Amid

In the middle of

With

[Literary] Amidst, in the midst of

Included in, one/some of, in the group/number of

Jointly, mutually, together, with one another

Particularly when referring to a one-to-one relationship or the relation of a single thing to many surrounding things severally and individually in a reciprocal relationship. As long as there a single thing the parties have in common, use between.


Adverb:
In or along the space separating two objects or regions

In the period separating two points in time

Preposition:
Particularly when referring to exactly two


At, into, or across the space separating two objects or regions

  • Expressing movement from one side or point to the other and back again

In the period separating two points in time

In the interval separating two points on a scale

Indicating a connection or relationship involving two or more parties

  • With reference to a collision or conflict
  • With reference to a choice or differentiation involving two or more things being considered together

By combining the resources or actions of two or more people or other entities

  • Shared by two or more people or things

[Archaic] betwixt

Examples:
The tiny cake was shared among the three men.

You’re among friends.

A child was among the injured.

He distributed the proceeds among his creditors.

Decide among yourselves.

Among the songs written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, “Yesterday” is said to be the most frequently recorded by other artists.

I found these wild strawberries hidden among the roots of the trees.

Snakes are among the animals most feared by humans.

Fluoridation has caused a drop in tooth decay among children.

This pronunciation is not popular among the general public.

The Catholic church would be in a better position if they had been rooting out abuses among the clergy from the beginning.

Surprise *eye roll* members of the government are bickering among themselves.

The king decided to divide his kingdom among the three princesses.

They are choosing a privatization scheme from among five models.

He was among the first 29 students enrolled in the welding course.

We shared the money evenly amongst the three of us.

Among the victim’s effects were an iPad, a wallet, and car keys.

Adverb:
Be sure to put layers of paper with tar in between.

We traveled from from Leipzig to Dresden, with the gentle Elbe flowing between.

Do four sets of exercises with no rest in between.

Preposition:
Caleb hunkered down in the little space between the living room and the hall.

Philip stood between his parents.

The bond between Amy and her mother.

The border between Mexico and the United States is quite porous.

The dog crawled between us and lay down at our feet.

Those who travel by train between London and Paris don’t have to worry about ferries or the weather.

The kids are always snacking between meals.

There are some long, cold nights between autumn and spring.

A man aged between 18 and 30 is in his prime.

They have between 25 and 40 percent off on children’s clothes.

The difference between income and expenditure can be depressing.

The relationship between Pauline and Chris is heating up.

Negotiations between the two countries are continuing.

The new thingamabob has links between science and industry.

There was a collision in midair between two light aircraft above Geneva.

The wars between Carthage and Rome did not end well for Carthage.

You’ll have to choose between two or three different options.

Oxygen and nitrogen between them account for 99 per cent of air.

They had drunk between them a bottle of Chianti.

I parked my car between the two telegraph poles.

You’ll find my brain between my ears.

My house was built among the gum trees.

History of the Word:
Old English ongemang (from on meaning in + gemang meaning assemblage or mingling). The -st of amongst represents -s (an adverbial genitive which first appeared in the 16th century) + -t (probably by association with superlatives, as in against). Old English betwēonum, from be meaning by + a Germanic word related to two.

Have you found any odd ducks of your own?

Return to top


Leave a Reply