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Author Topic: Are you correctly using “between” and “among”?  (Read 342 times)
Joe Carillo
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« on: March 27, 2017, 09:24:45 AM »

Until my college days I used to be supremely confident of choosing correctly between the prepositions “between” and “among.” This was because my grade-school grammar teachers had so efficiently drilled into my brain this very simple rule: “Use ‘between’ for two, and use ‘among’ for more than two.” The rule worked very well indeed for sentence constructions involving twosomes, like “The bond between Eduardo and Alberto is very strong,” and for those involving threesomes or more, like “Choosing from among three or five job applicants is easy.” I hardly batted an eyelash when making the choice.

But there finally came a time when I began to have my doubts. Using “between” rarely gave me problems, but there were far too many situations when using “among” for threesomes or more simply didn’t seem right. Sentences like the following particularly baffled me: “The chiffon cake was divided among Ana, Gloria, and Julia.” “The stewardess had mud among her fingers.” “The rich matron must have dropped her wallet somewhere among the supermarket, the street, and the parking lot.” In all three cases, “among” seemed to me a grammatical misfit and “between” a more natural choice.

As things turned out, my gut feel was right. Years later, when I finally put my mind to resolving my doubts, I discovered that contrary to what many of us had been taught, the idiomatically correct way to say those sentences is as follows: “The chiffon cake was divided between Ana, Gloria, and Julia.” “The stewardess had mud between her fingers.” “The rich matron must have dropped her handbag somewhere between the supermarket, the street, and the parking lot.” I also found several other wrinkles to the “between/among” rule that I hardly knew about.

It’s well-settled among English-language authorities, of course, that “between” is the only choice when exactly two entities are specified: “This is a private matter between you and me.” “The hostilities between Israel and the Hezbollah have escalated into open warfare.” However, we enter a gray area when more than two entities are involved or when the number of entities is unspecified. In such cases, the choice between “between” and “among” will actually depend on what we intend to say.

Here’s what The American Heritage Book of English Usage prescribes for those situations:

(1) Use “between” when the entities are considered as distinct individuals: “The Black Hawk landed between the tenement houses.” The helicopter is assumed not to have landed on any of the individual houses but anywhere between them.

(2) Use “among” when the entities are considered as a mass or collectivity: “The Black Hawk landed among the tenement houses.” The helicopter is assumed to have landed in the general location of the houses, and the possibility is left open that it could have landed on one of those houses.

“Between” is therefore used when the entities are seen as determining the limits or endpoints of a range, “among” when indicating inclusion in a group.

The Merriam-Webster’s 11th Collegiate Dictionary emphasizes that “between” is particularly appropriate for denoting a one-to-one relationship, regardless of the number of items involved. It says that “between” is called for in the following situations:

(1) Use “between” when the number is unspecified: “There should be close coordination between line departments.”

(2) Use “between” when more than two are enumerated: “This is between you and me and the walls of this room.”

(3) Use “between” when even when only one item is mentioned but repetition is implied: “The motorist stopped between every intersection to make a cellular phone call.”

Both American Heritage and Merriam-Webster’s 11th consider “among” more appropriate when the emphasis is on distribution or inclusion in a group rather than on individual relationships: “The restiveness among the youth has lately become a serious problem in France.” “Dylan Thomas is among the most celebrated of modern poets in English.”

I trust that this discussion has sufficiently clarified the proper usage of “between” and “among.” (2006)

This essay, 494th in the series, first appeared in the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in  the July 24, 2006 issue of The Manila Times, © 2006 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.
« Last Edit: March 27, 2017, 10:10:18 AM by Joe Carillo » Logged

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