Mon. Apr 22nd, 2024


The prepositions among and between have always been subjects of controversy, for many grammarians believe that between is meant for the description of only two persons or things and among for three or more people or things. Using ‘among’ and ‘between’ are not as simple as many writers or speakers often think.

Generally, we use between to connect two persons, objects or ideas: There is little difference between the two of them. She couldn’t tell the difference between either of them. Among is however used in connection with several entities: There is little difference among all five candidates. He shared the reward among his friends.
However, it is to be noted that language scholars have never agreed that between should be restricted to two (Merriam Webster 2000). We have found between being admitted as usable for more than two. In some situational contexts, between can have reference to more than two (Gowers 2014).

Of course, where several things are considered individually, ‘between’ might be a better choice: He divided the reward equally between the five of us. It is also worth remembering that when describing a choice, between is followed by and not or: It’s a matter of choosing between Jane ‘and’ George (not Jane ‘or’ George). And although amongst is still widely used, discriminating writers prefer among (King 2009).
The point of emphasis here is that in modern usage, ‘between’ is often used when referring to more than two things (although some people object to this use), as in: An agreement has been reached between all the states of America. In my own opinion, this sentence is acceptable (Kirkpatrick 2014).

It is important to also note that among suggests a looser relationship than between. For example, when three or more things are brought into a close, reciprocal relationship, such as they would be with a treaty, between is better than among: The treaty between Germany, France, and Italy was never ratified (Eggenschwiler and Biggs 2001).

Similarly, we can equally use between where division into two parts is made for numbers larger than two. For example, it is more acceptable and correct to use between rather than among for the sentence: There are excellent roads between Guadalajara and the other important cities of the region (Long 2000). What this implies is that the attempt to limit between to use only with two items has failed. The Oxford English Dictionary according to Perrin (2000) says that from the first, between had been used of several. So used, between tends to suggest the individuals involved more than the situation e.g The family of seven hadn’t a pair of shoes between them (Pooley 1996). The distinction between preposition between and among has become less obvious in the contemporary usage (Gratthorn, Kreidler and Heiman 2000).

Among is however appropriate when there are three separate items: among his friends, among all who were there. Between can be used for any plural number of items, though some purists think it should be reserved for two items. The real difference is that among is vaguer and more collective than between, which draws attention to each of the items. In these contexts, one can have a sentence using among: They hoped to find one good person among the fifty applicants. Let’s look at another sentence constructed using between for further illustration thus: The mediator saw a basis for agreement between management and the union (Crews 2000).

Let’s examine how between and among are used as prepositions of place in the following sentences. We use between instead of among in the sentence: Zimbabwe is situated between Zambia to the north, Mozambique to the east, Botswana to the west, and South Africa to the south.

However, we use among instead of between for the second sentence that reads thus: She eventually found her passport among the clothes in her drawer. This is supported by the principle that we use between with two or more people or things that we see as individual or separate. We use among when we see the people or things as part of a group or mass.
Between and among are not used only as prepositions of place. To think about something done to or by a group or groups of things or people, we can use either between or among: The money is to be divided between/among the towns in the area. Another relevant example here: The prize will be shared between/among the first six finishers in the race.

However, when we specify the individual members of the group using singular nouns, we use between rather than among e.g. There was a disagreement between Neil, John and Margaret.

We also use between, not among, when we talk about comparisons and relationships (e.g. a difference between, a connection between…, a friendship between, a link between…): what are the differences between rugby league, rugby union and American football?

We use among not between, when we mean ‘occurring in’, ‘one/some of’ or ‘out of’ as in: The disease has now broken out among the hill tribes (= ‘occurring in’); They are among the best hockey players in the world (= ‘some of’); Among the capital cities of South America, Quito is the second highest (= ‘out of’).

Readers need to also notice how we use the expression among other things (not between other things): Among other things, I enjoy painting and gardening (Hewings 2000).

It is suggested that in choosing between among and between, one will be better off following ones instincts than trying to follow someone else’s theory of what is correct. One needs to also note how between emphasizes differences between one person and each of a number of others, or the whole of them collectively, while among shows an indefinite relationship within the group. It is on the basis of the above analysis that it was once concluded that the prepositions among and between may be used interchangeably in most contexts (Kirkpatrick 2014).

In choosing either between/among, one needs to be guided by principle of correctness, principle of acceptability, situational contexts and linguistic environment.

Crews F. (2000) The Random House Handbook: New York, Random House Publishers pg 406
Eggenschwiler J. and E.O. Biggs (2001) Writing: Grammar, Usage, and Style: New York, Wiley Publishing Inc. pp 193-194
Gratthorn A.A, C.W Kreidler and E.J Heiman (2000) The Dynamics of Language: Lexington, D.C Health and Company pg 322
Gowers E. (2014) Plain Words- A guide to the Use of English: United Kingdom, Penguin Books pg 198
Hewings M. (2000) Advanced Grammar in Use: U.S.A, Cambridge University Press pg 106
King G. (2009) Improve your Grammar: Glasgow, Herper Collins Publishers pg 151
Kirkpatrick B. (2014) Better English Usage: Scotland, Geddes & Grosset pp 304-305
Perrin P.G (2000) Writers’ Guide and Index to English: Chicago, Scott, Foresman and Company pg 439
Pooley R.C (1996) Selection from Grammar and Usage in Textbooks on English: New York, Prentice Hall publishers pp 135-137
Long R.B (2000) The Sentence and its Parts: A Grammar of Contemporary English: Chicago, The University of Chicago Press pg 280

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