Between vs. Among: Commonly Confused Words

on May 18, 2017 by ProofreadingPal in Writing Guides facebook in twitter

There’s an old saying attributed to Benjamin Franklin: “Three can keep a secret, if two of them are dead.” But do you keep a secret between friends, or among friends? Of course, if more than two people know a secret, the probability becomes higher—or is it greater?—that somebody will spill the beans. In fact, the more people—or the larger the number?—the more chance, or the higher chance—or the larger chance that . . . I’m sorry, where was I?

What’s not a secret is that the English language is difficult to learn. Even native speakers can stumble over the many pairs and trios of words that mean almost (but not quite) the same thing. Making the proper choices is what separates good written English from bad. This series of columns will help you make the right choices and understand the reasoning behind them.

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Everything Counts in Large Amounts

Before we consider the question of between vs. among, let’s look at the distinctions of degree that follow. I covered this in my last blog, but let’s have a quick review. When we speak of “more people” or “a larger number of people,” the meaning is functionally the same, but we choose the adjective based on whether we’re talking about countable objects or mass or abstract nouns.

If we’re speaking of people, for example, a volleyball team has fewer members (countable noun=6) than a baseball team (countable noun=9). Furthermore, volleyball requires less equipment (mass noun) than baseball.

See more at Comparison and Contrast: Commonly Confused Words.

General and Specific

Understanding these distinctions is the key to understanding when to use between vs. among. Many of us learned to use between when expressing a choice or relationship of two objects, and that’s perfectly correct, in all cases, no matter the nature of those objects. But the converse of that rule (that we must use among when speaking of three or more objects) is not universally true. When speaking of more than two nouns, the choice depends on the nature of those nouns. For mass nouns, and even for most countable nouns, you should use among. But when the countable nouns are named, defined, or otherwise distinct, use between.

For example, use between when there are two options, no matter the nature of the noun.

  • Baseball’s greatest rivalry is between the Red Sox and the Yankees. (distinct, countable nouns)
  • The World Series is a contest between baseball’s two leagues. (undefined countable nouns)
  • There is no love lost between Bostonians and New Yorkers. (mass nouns)

We also use between to indicate a range of numbers.

  • Stadium managers estimate attendance of tonight’s ballgame at between 35,000 and 37,000.

Use among when referring to a group or undefined countable nouns.

  • Competition is fierce among the five teams of the American League’s eastern division. (undefined countable nouns)
  • David Ortiz’s strong slugging made him popular among Red Sox fans. (mass noun)

However, use between when referring to three or more distinct countable nouns—usually, but not always, named.

  • In the National League’s Central division, it’s a toss-up for first place between Detroit, St. Louis, and Milwaukee.
  • In the middle innings, the Red Sox can choose between relief pitchers Matt Barnes, Joe Kelly, Heath Hembree, Robby Scott, and Fernando Abad.

The examples above are all proper names of people or places. But the rule applies to any distinct nouns.

  • When buying tickets for a ballgame, you must first select between grandstand seats, bleachers, and luxury boxes.

Remember, though: use between only when the options are explicitly named. When referring to the options generically, use among.

  • The lead in the NL Central division has rotated among these three teams.
  • The coach must choose from among five available relief pitchers.
  • Visitors can select among several seating options.

Next time, we’ll look at more words describing comparisons and relationships and consider the case of a common adjective that is literally beyond compare. In the meantime, we’re always happy to answer your questions in the comment section!

Jack F.

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