Thursday, September 23, 2010

Among vs. Between: What's the Difference?

Brandon writes:
Hi Snarky,
Could you explain the difference between among and between? Specifically, would you say that something is 'between us' or 'among us'?
Thanks for your e-mail, Brandon. These two prepositions give a lot of grief to a lot of people, so I'm happy you brought this up.

Kids are often taught to use between when it involves two things and among when it involves more than two things. But that only works sometimes. The words have different connotations, and that can make things more complicated.

For me to be able to answer your second question, I would need to know the context. Sometimes 'between us' is correct and sometimes 'among us' is correct, depending on the sense of 'us' in the sentence.

Quick rules:
  • Use between in the sense of a wedge dividing two or more parties. Let's not let this petty argument come between us. 'Us' could mean 'you and me' or 'you, me and others.'
  • Think between when the object is two or more specifically identified entities. My school's valedictorian can take her pick between Stanford, Dartmouth, and Penn State. Stephanie's afternoons were tied up between band practice, gymnastics and student council
  • Think among when the object is a crowd or collection in a general sense. My school's valedictorian can take her pick among selective universities. You are among friends. There is a traitor among us (us = me, you, and others). The cake and pizza were shared among the staff. The Jonas Brothers are popular among 'tween girls.
When things get tricky: When referring to location or placement, you can often be grammatically correct by using either among or between. Yet the sentences would yield different meanings. Think about the sense you want to convey and choose the more precise option. 
  1. We hunted for my sister's earring between the leaves. This implies that there are just a few leaves, and we searched the area between them.
    We hunted for my sister's earring among the leaves.
    This implies that there is a carpet or pile of leaves, and we searched through them. 
  2. He sat on the bleachers between the spectators. This implies that either (a) he sat between two specific spectators, or (b) that there were just few spectators on the bleachers and he positioned himself somewhere between the groups or individuals.
    He sat on the bleachers among the spectators.
    This implies that there was a crowd, and he sat in the midst of it.

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