Commonly Confused Words: Among and Between

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In some contexts, the words among and between have similar meanings. According to traditional rules of usage, between is used for two nouns, and among for more than two. But this so-called rule doesn't hold up in all cases.

Definitions

The preposition among means in the company of, by the joint action of, or each with the other.

The preposition between means by the common action of, in point of comparison to, from one to another, or by the combined effort of.

In general, between applies to reciprocal arrangements (one member to another member), and among applies to collective arrangements (with all members involved). However, as explained in the Oxford English Dictionary, The American Heritage Dictionary, and the usage notes below, between may apply to more than two members.

Examples

  • "Among his friends and neighbors, there were brilliant and gifted people—he saw that—but many of them, also, were bores and fools, and he had made the mistake of listening to them all with equal attention." (John Cheever, "The Country Husband." The Stories of John Cheever. Knopf, 1978)
  • "The store was open only in the afternoons. In the mornings and on Sundays, she drove around the countryside in our ancient and spacious Buick, searching for trophies among the area's country stores and farms and barns." (Alice Adams, "Roses, Rhododendron." The Stories of Alice Adams. Knopf, 2002)
  • "The boy, almost surreptitiously, took a stick of candy from his pocket, broke off half, and stuck it between his lips." (Robert Penn Warren, "Christmas Gift." The Virginia Quarterly Review, 1938)
  • "It took me a week to learn the difference between a salad plate, a bread plate and a dessert plate." (Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Random House, 1969)
  • The consensus among pollsters is that the Democrats are set to pick up between 25 and 35 seats this fall.

    Usage Notes

    • "One divides money, goods, property between two persons, but among three or more. The distinction, however, is not so simple. When speaking either of group action, or of precise spatial relationship, one must use between, however many participants are involved; as in 'The children raised £25 between them,' or 'Switzerland lies between France, Germany, Austria, Liechtenstein, and Italy.'" (Eric Partridge, Usage and Abusage, ed. by Janet Whitcut. W.W. Norton & Co., 1995)
    • "These words share more common ground than they used to. Between was formerly reserved for situations where just two things or people were being related—shared between husband and wife—and among complemented it when there were three or more: shared among the relatives. The restriction on the use of between has certainly gone by the board, and Gowers declared it to be 'superstition' in Complete Plain Words (1954). It is not uncommon for between to be used in expressions referring to more than two groups or reference points, as in a balance between deference, quotation and his own critical comment. But among is still reserved for situations where there are at least three parties involved." (Pam Peters, The Cambridge Guide to English Usage. Cambridge University Press, 2004)

      Practice

      Here are some exercises to test your knowledge. Answers are below.

      • (a) "On the sidewalk, _____ torn newspapers and the butts of cigarettes, pigeons hopped about." (Isaac Bashevis Singer, "The Key." The New Yorker, 1970)
      • (b) As talks stalled over an impasse _____ the U.S. and China, discontent escalated _____ the 15 members of the Security Council.
      • (c) "One of the most striking differences _____ a cat and a lie is that a cat has only nine lives." (Mark Twain, Pudd'nhead Wilson, 1894)

      Glossary of Usage: Index of Commonly Confused Words

      The Glossary of Usage contains more than 300 sets of commonly confused words. There are links to definitions, examples, usage notes, and practice exercises.

      Answers to Practice Exercises

      (a) among
      (b) between, among
      (c) between