Between vs. Among

OK, so a mistake here isn’t going to make or break you, but there is a difference between “between” and “among,” so why not learn it? If all of the following sentences sound right to your ears, read on.

A. It came down to a contest between Sally, Greg, and Consuelo for class president.
B. I couldn’t decide between lavender and strawberry scented air freshener.
C. Neil Armstrong truly was a giant among men.
D. Katniss decided that the forest was the safest place; she could easily hide among the trees.

The rule is this: use “between” when referring to two objects and only two. For three or more, use “among.” Therefore (although not all grammarians agree; see below), sentence (A) is wrong.

Really? But it sounds so right! In this case, that’s probably because you’re used to hearing the phrase “contest between” instead of “contest among.” So often, contests (or the contests we’re most interested in) involve two parties: the United States and the Soviet Union, Bush and Gore, Edward and Jacob, Coke and Pepsi. And using “between” to refer to more than two things is a common mistake, unlike its opposite (using “among” for two things), meaning you’ve heard it more often in general, biasing your brain in favor of “between.” And yet “a contest among Sally, Greg, and Consuelo” is correct, while the other is, in my opinion, utterly not.

Just consider using “among” in (B) or “between” in (C): “I couldn’t decide among lavender and strawberry” sounds off, and “a giant between men” sounds way off. Chances are you’re imagining three men: Mr. Armstrong and two anonymous smaller ones. If this gives you trouble, think about the derivation of the word “between.” “Twain” means “two,” “couple,” or “pair” according to Webster’s. On the other hand, Webster’s notes the similarity of “-mong” to Old English “mengen,” meaning “to mix.”

The sentence in (D) presents an opportunity to point out the gray area in the choice of “between” versus “among.” For example, you could also write “Katniss hid from her pursuers between trees.” The difference is whether you want to call to the reader’s mind two trees or more than two. “Among” is still the best choice for the sentence in (D), because two trees hardly make a forest.

You may be wondering, “What about ‘amongst’?” My advice on the use of this word is simple: avoid it. That is, unless you’re going to be using “betwixt” as its counterpart when talking about only two things. I don’t know, maybe you’re writing a medieval piece.

Opposing Views

Amazingly, Webster’s includes a usage note at “between” that begins, “There is a persistent but unfounded notion that between can be used only of two items and that among must be used for more than two. Between has been used of more than two since Old English…” Ugh! Horrible! I wholly disagree.

I’m starting to think that we shouldn’t hold up Old English (which The Chicago Manual of Style also uses to defend “since” instead of “because” and seems to be the basis for CMS’s support for “between” as well) as a shining example of standards to apply to modern English.

Have you seen actual Old English? You need an advanced degree to be able even to read it. Chaucer is Middle English, and that certainly bears only a vague resemblance to the way we write and speak today. Our conventions of spelling are different; why not our conventions of grammar as well? There are certainly grammatical differences: we don’t use gendered nouns in modern English, for one. How can we do away with some old rules but point to a legacy as the justification for keeping others? Anyway…

My Concise OED also sanctions “between” for two or more.

At least the Associated Press stylebook (for journalistic writing) and Words into Type rather agree with me, making the basic distinction I’ve described but allowing for “between” “if each item is considered severally and individually” (Words into Type p. 383)—for example, “Between the rows of beans, plant lettuce.” (Meaning between each two rows of beans.) But I suppose this latitude would allow for “between” to be used in conjunction with the presidential race above. *Sigh!* Frustrating.

Related Links

AP Stylebook
Chicago Manual of Style
Merriam-Webster’s
Oxford English Dictionary
Words into Type (on Amazon.com)

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