ATGV: Between vs. Among

DEAR GV:

I heard you on NPR – you’ve chosen a good mission!!!

Would you please write about the difference between ‘between’ and ‘among?’ I never hear ‘among’ anymore. People (newspapers, TV and even NPR) just use ‘between.’ The meeting was between Russia, China and Japan. He decided to share it between Connie, Ronnie and Vonnie. I thought between was for 2 only and among covered 3 or more. Am I wrong? Tell me no.

Thanks for your efforts. It is nice to know someone else grinds teeth when the lovely English language is abused and neglected and treated loosely. I guess misery loves company!

Namaste,
Judith

Judith, thank you for your question!

The answer: generally, you use between for two and among for three or more.

I’ve wondered about this rule on a few occasions. I’ve decided to check a few sources: the AP Stylebook (of course), the Oxford English Dictionary, the Columbia Guide to Standard English, and the University of San Francisco style (which is a combination of AP and Chicago styles).

1) However, what do you say when there’s a war among three countries?
–The war was between Angola, Norway and Papua New Guinea.
–From what I’ve read, it’s okay to use between if there is fighting between Angola and Norway, Norway and Papua New Guinea, and Papua New Guinea and Angola. You must be able to use between with any two choices.
–It’s the same if it were a horse race.
–They’re coming to the finish line, and it’s between Cheery Bosom, Superman’s Flying Low and Sand in my Pants!

2) It’s okay to use between if one or both of the sides consist of multiple elements:
–World War II was between the Allies and Germany, Italy and Japan.

3) If we’re talking about sharing one substance, among is standard:
–He divided the pasta among the four hungry students.

I think Kenneth G. Wilson of The Columbia Guide to Standard English says it best:

Between can be used of as many items as you like if the relationship is one-to-one, however much it may be repeated with different partners: Economic relations between Great Britain, France, and Italy [or between some members of the EEC] are tense at present. Among works with any plural number above two: Among the milling ballplayers, fans, and reporters were the four umpires.

Among the blog enthusiasts of the world, I think mine are the best. :-)

Overall, always use between for two. Use among for three or greater, unless it sounds wrong to you. In that case, use between if you could theoretically use between with any two elements in your sentence.

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3 responses to “ATGV: Between vs. Among

  1. An excellent post, that I was preparing to forward to some of the people whose work I edit daily. But then I got to this bit:

    2) It’s okay to use between if two different sides are comprised of multiple elements:

    “are comprised of”??? Gah! I feel like I spend half my day changing this one!! Please, please, pleeeease everyone — it’s “are composed of”, “consist of”, or “comprise” (and the latter has a different meaning from the first two).

    I feel a bit guilty posting this comment, because I very much appreciate your work, and you may feel the pressure (I know I would!) to make each post perfect beyond reproach — but I figured you’d like to know. And if the distinction has changed recently, please give me an update! Would love to see a post on this. Thanks.

  2. Oh, no! I can’t believe it. Thank you, fdr, for pointing that out. I’ll change it right away.

    You were my favorite president. :-)

  3. Every Superman has his or her kryptonite, right?

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