In today’s edition of #WritingWednesday, let’s discuss between and among.
If you’re a grammar nerd, you might think you know where this piece is going. The common wisdom is that you use between to describe two things, and among for any quantity greater than two. For example,
This secret is just between you and me.
This secret is just among friends.
However, according to the Oxford Dictionaries blog, this rule of thumb is actually outdated:
Such advice is now regarded as outdated and out of step with current usage. In fact, as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) states, ‘In all senses, between has been, from its earliest appearance, extended to more than two’: there’s an example of this from the year 971 (yes, not 1971!). Contemporary authorities (such as Pocket Fowler’s Modern English Usage) advise that it’s perfectly acceptable to use between or among in certain contexts when referring to more than two participants:
✔ He divided his fortune between his four children.
✔ He divided his fortune among his four children.
Both sentences are correct. Who saw that little plot twist coming?
This is not to say that between and among are interchangeable, however. Instead, follow these guidelines:
- Use between whenever you’re talking about a scale or specific points in time. For instance, “This ad is aimed at adults between the ages of 25 and 40,” or “I should make the meeting between 10:00 and 10:15.”
- Use between whenever the entities are distinct. Example: “The budget will be split between paid search, social media, and video,” or “The distance between our office and the client’s office is only a mile.”
- Use among when the entities are collective rather than individually named. For instance, “The clients agreed among themselves to increase the budget,” or “These new blogs are among our best writing samples.”
- Use between whenever you’re describing differences. Examples: “I can’t tell the difference between the old color palette and the new,” or “There is no quantifiable difference between the messages we A/B tested.”
Lastly, note that both these sentences are correct, but they have different meanings:
• I walked between the vendors in the exhibition hall.
• I walked among the vendors in the exhibition hall.
In the first sentence, the vendors were to my right and left as I walked through the exhibition hall. In the second sentence, I was one of many vendors walking around the exhibition hall.
Had you heard the outdated between/among “rule”? Sound off in the comments!
I know I had, but it was one of those “rules” I purposefully ignored most of the time. Now I don’t have to because I know it’s not really a rule!