These two words cause quite a bit of headache in the heads of writers because they are so often unsure when to use which one. Is there a difference in their use? Or can they be used interchangeably? Not many writers or communications professionals can give you a straight answer.
In today’s post, however, I want to answer these questions about between vs. among to make sure that you never confuse these two words again. I will cover their definitions, their functions in a sentence, and provide you with a number of examples using each. Then, at the end, you can test yourself to see if you fully understand.
Let’s get started.
The Traditional Rule
The traditional rule regarding these two words states that between introduces two items while among introduces more than two items.
- The race is now between Jenny and Jill.
- The funds were divided among Steve, Carter, and Smitty.
This rule likely stems from each word’s respective etymology. The “tween” in between comes from same Indo-European roots that gave us two, twain, and duo. Similarly, “mong” comes from an Old English word that means “crowd” or “throng.”
As such, the rule covers most of the questions surrounding these words, but it doesn’t give the complete picture, and the difference between these words isn’t always quite so clear-cut.
When to Use Between
The Chicago Manual of Style describes between as indicating one-to-one relationships. In other words, we use between when talking about a relationship of a person or thing with regard to other people or things separately and distinctly.
- Can we keep this between you and me?
You can use between for more than two objects if this same one-to-one relationship between distinct units is understood from the context. For example,
- There is now more interstate trade between Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas.
- A new trade agreement was reached between Canada, the United States, and Mexico.
- I can’t decide between the pink, blue, or red shirt.
Between can also be used to refer to more than two things when items are considered one pair at a time.
- Discussions are under way between the corporate board and the Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas economic planning committees.
In this example, the board is considered one entity, and each state committee is interacting with the board individually. So, although four groups are being discussed, they are really three distinct pairs interacting with each other. If we reorganize the sentence, you can see this more clearly.
- Discussions are under way between the corporate board and Texas, between the corporate board and Oklahoma, and between the corporate board and Kansas.
The bottom line is you can use between when talking about distinct, individual items that have a one-to-one relationship—even if there are more than two.
When to Use Among
Among is used to refer to undefined or collective relationships—things that are not distinct or individual.
- Keeping peace among neighboring regions is an imperative.
- There was a consensus among union members not to raise dues.
- Tech giants are at war among themselves for market share.
- There were many good athletes among those still left in the fifth round.
As you can see, among is used for undefined or unspecified relationships, oftentimes between groups. These are neither discrete nor specified individuals.
Differences in Location
Between and among also have different meanings when it comes to indicating direction. Consider the following examples,
- Your keys fell among the books.
- Your keys fell between the books.
These two sentences communicate very different ideas.
The first expresses the idea that your keys fell among a pile of books and somewhere in the midst of them you will find your keys.
The second seems to indicate that your keys fell in between two books and that in the middle of them you will find you keys.
Between and Among as Prepositions
Being that both between and among are prepositions, you must ensure that any pronouns that follow either of them be in the objective case.
- Between her and him (Correct)
- Between she and he (Wrong)
- Between you and me (Correct)
- Between you and I (Wrong)
Remember the Difference
As I said above, the traditional rule will get you by in most cases and it’s easy enough to remember.
Between is for two items. You can remember this because between and two both have “tw” in them. Also “B” is the second (2) letter of the alphabet.
Among is for a lot of items and both start with an “A.”
A slightly more nuanced, and perhaps updated, view is that between is for any one-to-one relationship between discrete and separate things. Among is for undefined, collective uses, oftentimes with groups.
The debate over among vs. between is a little more complicated than the traditional rule leads you to believe.
Between is used for one-to-one relationships between discrete things.
Among is used for undefined or collective relationships between things.