Saturday, November 5, 2011

Confusing words - between and among

You will sometimes be told that between is for two people or things, and among is for more than two people or things. But it is not quite as simple as that.

While the first half is true, we don't exclusively use among for more than two. We sometimes use between. Generally speaking, when we see some people or things as a group, we use among, and when we see them as separate individuals or entities, we use between.
Here is an extract from the Oxford English Dictionary (quoted in Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage):
It [between] is still the only word available to express the relation of a thing to many surrounding things severally and individually, among expressing a relation to them collectively and vaguely
Click and Drop
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Exercise 1 - Use your instinct to complete the sentences with among or between.

among   ·   between
1. Our house lies a bit off the road, some pine trees.
2. There is a path to the house two lines of trees.
3. We are situated a forest, a river and some hills.
4. Poland was the ten countries that joined the EU in 2004.
5. France lies Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Germany and Belgium.
6. You shouldn't eat snacks meals.
7. That was the best meals I have ever eaten.
8. What is the difference a triangle, a square and a circle?
9. We walked the crowds strolling in the park.
10. We only had five pounds the three of us.
11. Don't tell anyone. This is just you, me and the gatepost. (idiom)
12. This way of dressing is very common teenagers.

Basic principles

Exercise 2 - Decide which word we use to express these ideas:

1.To say there are things on two sides
2.To talk about sb or sth being surrounded by things or people
3.To talk about position relative to more than two specified places
4.To mean 'one of' or 'some of'
5.To talk about differences, connections and relationships
6.To talk about sb or sth being included in a group
7.To talk about times or events
8.To talk about ownership or possession

In borderline cases you just have to use your instinct

My answers to Numbers 5 and 8 could perhaps be debated, and to some extent come down to instinct. But I will say that words like difference, connection and relationship are usually followed by between, not among, regardless of how many are involved.
Look at these examples from the linguistics website Motivated Grammar, where the writer gives his preferred options. In these cases either between or among would be possible. But in the first sentence the writer presumably sees the cronies as individuals, each getting their equal share, whereas in the second they are seen more as a group.
  • The gangster divided the loot equally between his cronies.
  • His cronies then distributed the loot among themselves.
Similarly I would make the following two choices:
  • Let's all three of us keep this between ourselves, shall we?
  • The members of the family were always quarrelling among themselves.
In the first sentence I'm talking about keeping a secret. A can talk about it with B or with C, B can talk about it with C or with A, and C can talk about it with A or with B, but nobody should talk about it with anybody else. The three people are therefore seen as individuals.
In the second sentence I'm suggesting that whenever the family got together, the whole family started arguing, not that there were individual arguments between pairs of people.
At least that's what I think is happening. It's not always easy to say why exactly we choose one or the other.

Divide and share

Notice how between is used for specified individuals, and among is used for less-well defined groups. When it is somewhere between the two, we have a choice.
  • Sam and the twins shared the cake between the three of them.
  • We shared the cake among / between the four of us.
  • We cut the cake and shared it out among the group.
  • The old man's money was divided among his relatives.
  • The old man's money was divided among / between his surviving children.
  • The old man's money was divided between his two sons and his daughter.

Fingers, toes and other sets of things with gaps

When we talk about series of things separated by gaps, we use between, not among.
  • The sand ran between her fingers.
  • Don't forget to wash between your toes.
  • It's important to read between the lines. (idiom)
  • Don't let this chance slip between your fingers. (idiom)
  • You shouldn't eat snacks between meals.

Between as an adverb

In all the uses we have been looking at, between and among are prepositions. But between can also be used as adverb to talk about the time or space between two or more things, usually preceded by in:
  • An avenue usually consists of two lines of trees with a road in between.
  • The family get together every Christmas, but don't see each other much in between.

Some problem areas with between

  • Between you and I / me?

    As between is a preposition it should always take the object pronoun, in this case me, and this is what you should really learn.
    But some native speakers say between you and I, probably because they have been corrected for using me in other situations where traditionalists say we should use I, such as Hi, it's me. (See my post on subject and object pronouns)
    The use of between you and I is now so widespread that some commentators see it as acceptable idiomatic use in informal English. If you've got used to saying it like that, it's probably OK in casual use; just don't use it in formal situations.
  • Between each/every

    Some people consider expressions like between each payday or between every tree to be incorrect, and prefer to add and the next:
    • Between each payday and the next ...
    • Between every tree and the next ...
    On the other hand, the construction without the addition of and the next has been used so often by the greats of English literature, that others consider this to be perfectly acceptable idiomatic use.
  • Between .... and (between)

    When there's a long idea after the between and before the and, some people add a second between. This is usually considered to be incorrect.
    There is a big difference between accidentally forgetting to pay back somebody you've borrowed money from, when you were drunk perhaps, and between 'forgetting' deliberately.
  • Either ... or = between ... and

    When we are talking about a choice between two things, it is tempting to use or instead of and. Many commentators consider this wrong, however.
    • We can either go to the beach or to the mountains.
    • We have a choice between going to the beach and going to the mountains.
  • 1914-1918 etc

    The dash (-) between a pair of numbers or dates stands for to, and as we always use and with between, it is considered to be incorrect to write between 1914-1918. We have a choice:
    • 1914-1918
    • From 1914 to 1918
    • Between 1914 and 1918

Putting it all together

Exercise 3 - Complete the sentences with among or between.

between   ·   among   ·   between/among
1. Report on the relations the executive, the judiciary and Parliament.
2. It was agreed the band members that it was time to go their separate ways.
3. Just think! You could be the lucky winners of this week's jackpot.
4. He was the first runners to cross the finishing line.
5. Divorce rates are high the islanders.
6. The three families had six cars them.
7. The difference the three candidates on this issue is very small.
8. Germany is one of the few Eurozone countries not to have had monetary problems.
9. Relations Eurozone countries have been a little strained lately.
10. There are strong cultural links the Scandinavian countries.
11. He divided his time equally work, rest and play.
12. He's been a singer and an actor, other things.
13. The relationships smoking, exercise and disease are well understood.
14. I can't distinguish these three brands of margarine.
15. Lawyers are the most highly paid professionals.
Note - These are my interpretations. When you've checked, click on 'Answers - Ex 3' to show where I think you have a choice.



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