Monday, August 25, 2014

Word Mix-ups: Between and Among (or Amid)

When it comes to describing the location of characters, novice writers are constantly confusing the words between and among (or amid, which means the same thing as among). Now, both between and among essentially mean "in the middle of"; the difference lies in "in the middle of what?"

The easy answer:

Historically, between would be used if the subject in question is directly in the middle of only two points, and among would be used if the object is in the middle of more than two points or a group. So:

1. Penny stood between Jason and Mike.
2. The hammock was strung between the two trees in the backyard.

3. Penny stood among Jason, Mike, and Katie.
4. The cylon stood among the humans, waiting for the time to strike.

The full, trickier answer:

Take a look at example three again. Does it seem a little strange to you? That's because the proper usage for between and among has evolved over the years. Nowadays, it's common for between to be used in any situation where the points that the subject is standing among are specifically and individually named. So, it would not technically be wrong for example three to read:

3. Penny stood between Jason, Mike, and Katie.

Example four, however, would not be changed, because the cylon is in the middle of a "group," which is a collective noun. If the humans were all listed by name, it would be a different matter; but in this instance, among is correct.


Now it gets even trickier. All the examples we've discussed so far involved stationary subjects, but a subject can also move between or among objects.

If a subject is moving, then the above rules for between and among still apply, with one change: between can now be used with a collective noun. Take a look at these examples:

5. The specter flew between the buildings of the city.
6. The specter flew among the buildings of the city.

Both of these sentences are grammatically correct, but here's the important thing: they don't mean the same thing.

When between is used to describe movement, it implies that the subject has a particular destination or goal in mind, or that they are following a specific path. When among is used, the connotation is that the subject is moving or searching in a more aimless, uncertain, or roundabout manner.

So if you were writing a story about a specter flying through a city, you would use example five if the specter was hurrying to a meeting or rushing to locate the person it once loved. In this case, the buildings are essentially an obstacle it has to circumvent. If, however, the specter was simply wandering the city to see the sights, or was lost and trying to find its way out, or was searching for someone (but not in a rush), you would use among to describe its movement.

These rules also reply to figurative positions. So, negotiations between the two companies, but negotiations among the soldiers.

Also, remember that amid means the same thing and works the same way as among. Amongst and amidst are simply older forms of these words, so the same rules apply to them.

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