Among vs. Between: An Overview
Among and between both come from Old English words with similar meanings. They’re both used to distinguish the position of an item or person in relation to other items or people. Their use can be figurative or literal.
Among – In company or association with
Between – In intermediate relation to
- They forced me to choose between traveling with my mom or with my dad.
- The spoils were divided among the attackers.
- I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place.
- His spirit was somewhere among the trees.
Though they have a similar meaning, their use and connotation are different. Look at the following sentences and see if you can spot the difference:
Negotiations between the two parties came to a standstill last night.
There was no agreement among the members of the party.
At first glance, it seems between is used when you’re speaking about the relationship of two objects or people. Whereas, among is used when there are over two.
History would say that definition makes sense. Between comes from the Old English word twā which means two. And, there is a common belief that this simple definition is true. However, it is not the case. The rules for using the two words are not that simple.
For example, look at the correct usage of between in this sentence:
Jamie wanted a stuffed animal for Christmas, but I couldn’t choose between an elephant, a tiger, a bear, or a dog.
There are over two items listed in the sentence, but it is correct to use between instead of among. Why is that? Read on to find out.
When to Use ‘Between’
Use between when you’re describing the relationship between separate and distinct (individual) items or elements. The items can number more than two (many more). But, as long as they’re individually separated, use between to distinguish them. Read these examples to see what I mean:
- I couldn’t choose between Baskin Robbins’ 31 different flavors of ice cream..
- The money was divided between his son and daughter.
- For my elective course, I have to choose between band, choir, debate team, or athletics.
- Going to Starbucks is stressful! I can’t choose between a latte, cappuccino, americano, mocha, or a blended drink.
Between is also used to distinguish the location of things in relation to one another. But, the rule of describing individual items remains the same. For example:
- Main street is located between 1st St. and Pacific St.
- I buried the treasure between those three big stones in the middle of the island.
- I think your keys fell between the couch cushions.
- Read the paragraph between the two pictures.
When to Use ‘Among’
Use among when you’re describing one or more distinct item or person in relation to items or people that are not distinct and are part of a larger group. For example:
- Her daughter was lost somewhere among the mass of people.
- The six rare coins were hidden among the pebbles in the bucket.
You can also use among when showing that something or someone is a part of a group. Again, the usage is used to describe the relationship between a distinct individual, and other things that are not distinct.
- The president felt most comfortable when she was among the members of her own party.
When among is used to describe a location, it shows something distinct that is surrounded by something else whose individual parts are not so distinct.
- Among the books in his library, we found an original copy of his manuscript.
‘Among’ vs. ‘Amongst’
You may read or hear people say amongst instead of among in certain situations. Both words mean the same and are used in the same connotation.
Using amongst instead of among is often viewed as archaic and even pretentious by many Americans. However, amongst is accepted and used more commonly by British English speakers.
A classic idiom using amongst is: There is no honor amongst thieves.
The short answer is that among and amongst are very similar, with some minor distinctions. Here is a video that describes the relationship between among and amongst.
Among vs. Between Usage Review
Like any language, you’ll find a distinction between guidelines and rules within English. And the differences between between and among are definitely guidelines rather than strict rules!
Historically , the rules described in this article are not hard and fast rules per se. Instead, you can see them as guidelines on the way American natives speak. For the most part, between and among are interchangeable in the closest thing you’ll find to a rule book: the dictionary..
Moreover, English users themselves don’t always follow these general guidelines strictly. You may find examples where writers or speakers broke the rules and used between when they probably should have used among, or the inverse.
However, when communicating with native English speakers, your best bet is to follow the rules above to use the commonly understood usage of the words. You’ll sound better and communicate more effectively.
Remember: Use between when describing the relationship of distinct, individual items and use among when describing the relationship between distinct items and items seen as a group or collective.
If you want to master your advanced English, distinguishing the common usage of between and among is a must. And, if you need more help, here is a list of extra resources that will assist in understanding the concept:
Grammarly – Among vs. Between—What’s the Difference?
Grammar Monster – Between and Among (The Difference)
Espresso English – What’s The REAL Difference Between BETWEEN And AMONG?
Merriam-Webster – ‘Between’ or ‘Among’ (or ‘Amongst’)?
Cambridge – Between or among?
Between this post and the resources above, you can get a good understanding of the use of these two words. However, like all rules (and general guidelines) in English, there are other exceptions and some less-common uses. If you have further questions about among vs. between or would like a highly experienced online tutor to help you improve your English speaking, visit our appointments page to schedule an introductory lesson today.