Among or between?
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In ‘traditional’ grammar the rule is that between is used when talking about only two people or things, while among is used when the people or things being talked about are three and above.
In the between versus among argument, the focus is on the two words functioning as prepositions. Let’s look at how these two words are used:
- To indicate the distance separating two things or people. For example(1): Giri commutes between Bangalore and Chennai every day.
- Shared by people or things. For example(2): The task was divided between the twenty secretaries.
- Specific time separating two events, gap on a scale or dates. For example(3): John works between 10 a. m. and 5 p. m.
- Used to show choice. For example(4): Ashwin had to choose between being an employee or an entrepreneur.
- Taking place, being part of or within a group. For example(5): Jasmy was among the twenty participants who attended the Business Writing Skills programme.
- To indicate choice or sharing when more than three or more things and people are involved. For example(6): The task was divided among the twenty secretaries.
Take note of the deliberate use of the same construction for examples (2) and (6).
The argument of using among instead of between when talking about more than two things and people arises from the fact that the etymology of between is the old English word betwēonum, meaning ‘by two’. Therefore, example (2) will be considered as a grammatically incorrect construction.
However, modern-day grammarians consider this argument archaic and outdated. They claim that it is okay, in certain contexts, to use between when referring to choice or the relationship between three or more things or people.
Here’s why: Categorised under the rule of generality versus specificity, these modern-day grammarians feel you can use between, irrespective of the number involved, when naming distinct, individual items; among when the items are part of a group, or are not specifically named. However, there should always be three or more items or people when among is used.
Therefore, example (2) is correct because there is a specific or distinct mention of the people involved in the task – secretaries. The task wasn’t divided among all the employees, which could comprise accountants, IT persons, cleaners, etc.
Similarly, example (6) is correct because the ‘secretaries’ are more than two.
But also remember that you’re choosing either between or among could change the meaning of the sentence. For example (7), The pen is hidden among the files. Example (8), The pen is hidden between the files.
Example (7) means that it is difficult to find the pen because so many files have ‘surrounded’ or ‘swallowed it (the pen) up’; while example (8) means that there is a pile of files to the left and to the right of the pen, which is positioned in the middle of the pile of files.
Apart from the above contexts to help you decide when to use either between or among, consider these thumb rules also:
- Use among when referring to things or people that can be regarded as collective nouns; that is, as a group or undifferentiated whole. For example (9), There is a disagreement among the committee on who should be promoted.
- Settle on between when referring to any number of distinctly named people, group or things with a common relationship. For example (10), Talks are ongoing between France, United Kingdom, Germany, Luxembourg and The Netherlands over Brexit. (*Apart from the fact that there’s a specific mention of these countries, their being part of the EU is the common thing that binds them).
- Between is preferable when talking about relationship of difference, in spite of the number of things or people involved. For example (11), The only difference between those start-up plans is reflected in strategies to execute them.
You can use either between or among depending on the context, and it’s important to know when you use them.