Among vs. amongst?

Among and amongst are prepositions used to introduce subjects that are surrounded by people or things, one of several other objects, or a part of a certain population. While amongst in more common for British English than American English, the terms carry the same definition. 

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What is the difference between among and amongst?

The debate between over among vs. amongst has existed within the English language for centuries, starting from Old and Middle English to present. Modern English speakers use the two terms interchangeably, but depending on which English grammar source you inquire, each term can carry slightly different meanings. 

Overall, there is no difference between among and amongst, outside of preference for using one over the other. Professional style guides like The Chicago Manual of Style and The Associated Press Stylebook have clear parameters for using among and amongst, and especially in conjunction with the words between and amid/amidst. 

To be among or amongst other nouns is to be the middle, to be one of several, or to be apart of a particular population. In a sense, the terms among and amongst are associated with the concept of “other,” where the sentence is describing a mass noun whether or not the narrator is apart of the sentence’s nouns or not. 

Additional sources of confusion over among vs. amongst involves the differences in word choice between British English and American English. British English speakers use amongst and among interchangeably, although among is still more common than amongst. American English speakers are more likely to use among instead of amongst

What does among and amongst mean?

The definition of among and amongst is to be surrounded by something, in the company of others, or part of a number or group of people. Among is also used to describe an occurrence or experience shared by the same group or community, or a differentiation between three or more people. 

We use the word among or amongst similarly to between or betwixt, as it describes one’s position between two or more people or things. It is also common to hear the phrase in the thick of instead of among or amongst to describe the same situation. For example,

I am sitting between Jon and Laurel at the movie theater. 

Betwixt the two cities lie miles of cornfields. 

The server is in the thick of the restaurant’s dinner rush. 

Synonyms of among include: Amid, amidst, mid, midst, and through. 

The term among stems from Old English ongemang (‘on’ + ‘gemang’), meaning “in assemblage,” or “in mingling.” Different sources site the same word, but spelled as onmang, for “in the midst of” around the 12th century. Confusion between among and amongst has existed in the English language since the 16th century, when the ending -t first became contested.

Writing tips for using among and amongst

The terms among and amongst are prepositions, which means they are used before a noun or pronoun to express a relation between words. For example, 

We can divide the sum among us. 

She prefers the wild, to live amongst thieves. 

If we look at additional example sentences comparing word choice between among and amongst, using amongst certainly sounds more sophisticated than among. For example,  

The worms lie among crows. 

The worms lie amongst crows.

The children groaned among themselves. 

The children groaned amongst themselves. 

The reality is that neither among or amongst is more formal than the other. Still, the latter examples above do point out how amongst can derive a demonstrable difference of sense in contrast to among. The sense of difference is most likely caused by the -st at the end of amongst, which infers a superlative form of among–– which means the word amongst describes the highest degree to which one is surrounded.

Further examples of superlative forms include finalist, cutest, or cruelest, where either word achieves its highest, most infinite sense. But in the case of among vs. amongst, this sense doesn’t hold across the board. Dictionaries such as Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary and the Oxford English Dictionary uphold this argument by insisting either word forms are synonymous regardless of how many subjects one is among in a sentence.

The key takeaway here is to avoid using words because they seem to provide a sense of unique dialogue. It’s best to use language that is natural and sensible to the audience you’re writing for. And unless you live in the United Kingdom, you’re less likely to use amongst over among

Among vs amongst: a matter of style

Certain writing style guides outline specific criteria for using words like among and amongst. Such guides are useful for professional writers and students to exercise English grammar rules in a way best suited for their writing platform. 

The Associated Press Stylebook, a reference guide for professional journalists, states how the word among is synonymous with the term between. Unlike the misconception disputed by Merriam-Webster and Oxford, the AP Stylebook recommends using the word between for describing the relationships between three or more subjects at once instead of among

According to the AP Stylebook, since among is a preposition, the words following it a sentence “must be in the object case,” to avoid ambiguity over which nouns the sentence is introducing. For example,

The senator describes climate change as a crisis among us.

Adam and Blake insist we share the profits between him and her

Mom will share the cake between you and me. 

The Chicago Manual of Style is a popular American style guide for book and magazine publishers but is also frequently used by media communication agencies, as well. CMOS Online also shares AP’s rule of associating the terms among and between, but takes a few steps further while differentiating between, among, and amid. 

CMOS states how between is used for comparing two subjects in terms of a one-on-one relationship, while among is used for countable amounts of subjects and amid for non-countable, mass nouns. The resolving judgment made by Chicago-style, however, is that the words amid and amongst should be avoided in American English altogether.

Literary examples of among vs. amongst

So far, we’ve covered how professional writing style guides encourage writers to use among vs. amongst, but what does this mean for creative writers who don’t have limitations for their vocabulary? In this case, it may be helpful to view how tricky prepositions are used in classic English literature, particularly between the years 1818-1903. In the following examples, we will examine five texts written to see exactly how famous authors have used among and amongst, and how frequently the terms are used.

Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft, 1818: English author

“…almost concealed amongst the foliage of those lovely trees; and now that group of labourers coming from among their vines…” 

–– Frankenstein, published in 1818.

Among: 38

Amongst: 1

The Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain, 1896: American author

“…and he stood alone among his enemies.”

–– The Innocents Abroad, 1896

Among: 121

Amongst: 0

Dracula by Bram Stroker, 1897: Irish author

“…our bones may lie amongst the common dead.”

“The storm was fearful, and as it boomed loudly among the chimney-pots….” 

–– Dracula, 1897

Among:

Amongst: 40

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, 1900: American author

“…we still have witches and wizards amongst us.”

“…she forgot where she was and fell among the poppies, fast asleep.”

–– The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, 1900

Among: 14

Amongst: 1

The Souls of Black Folk by W. E. B. Du Bois, 1903: American author

“…yet there was among us but a half-awakened common consciousness…”

–– The Souls of Black Folk, 1903

Among: 53

Amongst: 0

Surveying five influential texts for the cultural relevance of using among vs. amongst is hardly statistically significant. Still, it is noticeable how using either term makes zero difference in meaning or literary praise. It would appear as though the writers and their editors chose to use either among or amongst, and missed the outliers in between. 

Since this observation is speculative and we may never know how certain words develop into the grammatical debacles, writers can rest assured that their future novel will find themselves in good company whether they use among or amongst–– or even both!

Test Yourself!

Test how well you understand the difference between among and amongst with the following multiple-choice questions:

  1. Let’s say you’re submitting a book proposal to a literary agent in New York. Which of the following book titles will best represent your writing according to Chicago-style guidelines? 
    1. Starvation Among Everyday Consumption
    2. Starvation Amongst Everyday Consumption
    3. Starvation Amid Everyday Consumption
    4. Starvation Between Everyday Consumption
  2. According to the AP Stylebook, which of the following sentences is most correct?
    1. Cardi B among 12 artists to join Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. 
    2. Cardi B amongst 12 artists to join Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. 
    3. Cardi B amid 12 artists to join Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. 
    4. Cardi B one of 12 artists to join Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
  3. British English speakers are more likely to use ____________________.
    1. Amongst, not among.
    2. Among, not amongst.
    3. Amongst and among.
    4. Among and sometimes amongst. 
  4. True or false: Using amongst over among is improper grammar for modern audiences.
    1. True
    2. False
  5. Which of the following words is not similar to among/amongst?
    1. Betwixt 
    2. Throughout
    3. Interpolated
    4. Midst

Answers

  1. A: Starvation Among Everyday Consumption
  2. A: Cardi B among 12 artists to join Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. 
  3. D: Among and sometimes amongst. 
  4. B: False, interpolated is a verb
  5. C: Interpolated

Sources

  1. Among.” Merriam-Webster Dictionary, 2019. 
  2. Among.” Merriam-Webster Thesaurus, Merriam-Webster Dictionary, 2019. 
  3. Among.” Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2019. 
  4. Among, between.” The Associated Press Stylebook, Associated Press 2019. 
  5. Among (prep).” Online Etymology Dictionary, Douglas Harper, 2019. 
  6. Amongst (prep., adv.).Online Etymology Dictionary, Douglas Harper, 2019. 
  7. Baum, L. Frank. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Project Gutenberg, 2008. 
  8. Between; among; amid.” The Chicago Manual of Style Online, The University of Chicago, 2017. 
  9. Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk, Project Gutenberg, 2018.
  10. Stroker, B. Dracula, Project Gutenberg, 2019. 
  11. Twain, M. The Innocents Abroad, Project Gutenberg, 2018. 
  12. Wollstonecraft, M. Frankenstein, Project Gutenberg, 2018.

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