Are You Between or Among?

What’s a little joke between friends? Assuming there are just two of you, between is correct. But if you’re talking about a broader circle of friends, you’ll want to use among.

Often people think between is used only when referring to two persons, objects, or groups. It’s true that when the choice is between two distinct options, between is the right choice.

  • Edith couldn’t decide between the red or the black dress.
  • Jeremy’s college choice was between Harvard and Yale.

But between is also correct when there are more than two options. CMOS explains it this way: Between is “perfectly appropriate for more than two objects if multiple one-to-one relationships are understood from the context.”

For example:

  • Among the Christmas dresses on the sale rack, Edith’s final choice was between a red sequined dress and a black velvet gown.

Even though Edith has more than two options, her decision has come down to one of two.

Or this example:

  • The tensions between the board, faculty, and students were on edge following the Halloween prank.

But if you were to refer a group as a whole, among would be the word to use:

  • Tensions among the students ran at fever pitch.

Among can also refer to a relationship within a group.

  • Among the members of his caucus, Roberts was considered the most conservative.
  • Rosie was ill at ease among the members of the country club.

Between and among also function as location or direction words. Here their meanings lend specificity to a sentence.

  • Joe found the treasure between the trees.  (Implies only two trees)
  • Joe found the treasure among the trees. (Multiple trees)
  • Martha walked between her classmates. (They walked three abreast; implies moving in a specific direction)
  • Martha walked among her classmates. (Implies a casual scene of mingling, not moving in a defined direction or with purpose)

Amongst is a variation of among. You’re more likely to hear or read amongst (or amidst) in British English. In American English it is considered quaint, if not pretentious, and should be avoided except for period or historical writing.

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