Here at Magoosh TOEFL, we’ve already given you some posts on words that sound the same but have different meanings. Today, we’re going to look at a pair of words that sound very different, but have meanings that are almost the same. Among and between both refer to the position of things, or the way that things are shared. But these words have slightly different meanings and uses. Here are the rules for using among and between:
Rule 1: Things can only be among or between two or more things.
When you say that X is among or between Y, then Y cannot be a singular noun.
For example, suppose you looked up in the sky and saw a bunch of UFOs (alien spaceships) flying through the clouds. If you wanted to explain what you saw to someone else, you could say “There are UFOs between the clouds!” Or you could say “There are UFOs among the clouds!” But it wouldn’t make sense for you to say “I saw alien spaceships among the sky” or “One of the alien spaceships is between the biggest cloud.” Those sentences would just sound weird, because they wouldn’t be grammatical.
Rule 2: When talking about a small and very specific group of things, you should only use between.
In some cases, between and among are interchangeable (see rule 3 below). However, when something is physically in the middle of a small, specific grouping of things, you should only use between. Imagine again that you are looking at those alien spaceships in the sky. Then imagine one of the ships lands in the middle of three trees in front of your house. You could tell your neighbor “The spaceship landed between those three trees.” But it would sound strange, incorrect to say “The spaceship landed among those three trees.”
Similarly, let’s say the aliens got out of their UFO and started to talk to you and your neighbor. They could say “We want peace between our planet and yours.” This would be a perfectly acceptable thing to say. But if the aliens said “We want peace among our planet and yours,” that wouldn’t be an OK thing to say. You’d need to correct the aliens’ grammar, because something can only be shared between two very specific planets, not among them.
Rule 3: When talking about a larger, more general group, you can use either between or among.
Both between and among can be used to refer to something that is in the middle of a large, not-so-specific group of objects, or something that is shared by a large group or people or things.
So, while the aliens couldn’t tell you that they wanted peace among earth and their home planet, they would have other opportunities to use the word among as they talked to you and your neighbor. The aliens might tell you that they want peace among all humans and all aliens. But they wouldn’t have to tell you that. It would be just as acceptable for them to say that they wanted peace between all humans and aliens. Either one would be fine.
Bringing it all together in a picture
All three rules for using “among” and “between” are illustrated in the picture below. Hopefully this example helps you see how all of these rules really work together: