distinguish “between” and “among”
advice these days is that “between” should be reserved for the
just two entities, and if there are more than two, “among” should be
used. What is wrong with this advice? Consider what the OED
online has to say:
“V. 19. In all
senses, between has been, from its earliest appearance, extended to
more than two.
In OE. and ME. it was so extended in sense 1, in which AMONG is now
considered better. It 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: we
should not say ‘the space lying among the three points,’ or ‘a treaty
among three powers,’ or ‘the
choice lies among the three candidates in the select list,’ or ‘to
insert a needle among the closed
petals of a flower.’”
to the OED, the common advice is wrong because it leads to an incorrect
“among.” Merriam-Webster Online has a similar opinion, as quoted at the
end. In my opinion, having a different word when there are more
than two things in a comparison or relationship is awkward and
unhelpful. Instead, it is a
hoop for authors to jump through that reduces clarity. It is an
inhibition to understanding by making a pointless distinction. Making
distinction that the OED
advocates is useful because it is a distinction about the nature of the
Consider the case of two different studies, one involving two
species that reports foraging
differences between species, and another involving three
species that reports differences among
species. These studies have findings that are, to all intents and
purposes, the same. Hence, it is
unhelpful to have the language make them seem different. The fact that
this rule is unhelpful is
perhaps the reason why it is commonly incorrectly implemented, with
“among” often being used
for pairwise comparisons. The following quotations are inconsistent
with both the OED advice,
and the common advice to use “between” for two and “among” for more
Connell, J. H., T. P.
Hughes, C. C. Wallace, J. E. Tanner, K. E. Harms, and A. M. Kerr. 2004.
long-term study of competition and diversity of corals. Ecological
“To test the hypotheses
about competition listed in the Introduction, we
summarized the data for all the observed encounters between corals over
in the study period as a matrix of the interactions among species at
each site at
each quadrat (Appendices C, D, and E). We also used the matrices to
competition in two other ways.”
Nathan, R., G. G. Katul,
H. S. Horn, S. M. Thomas, and R. Oren. 2002. Mechanisms of
long-distance dispersal of seeds by wind. Nature 418:409-413.
the differences among means, the two samples appear to come
from the same population.”
Webb, C. O., D. D.
Ackerly, M. A. McPeek, and M. J. Donoghue. 2002. Phylogenies and
community ecology. Annual Reviews of Ecology and Systematics 33:475-505.
“This would lead to
weaker pairwise interactions among sister taxa.”
Elizabeth Pennisi, “The Case of the Disappearing DNA Hotspots”
Science 11 June 2004, p 1590
and humans are virtually identical. But two research teams
have found, to their surprise, key differences among these close
cousins in the
locations of DNA recombination hotspots: places where matching
exchange DNA much more frequently than normal.”
Wayne, R. K., Morin, P. A. 2004. Conservation genetics in the new
molecular age. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 2, 89-97.
close relatives leads to a reduction in genetic variability and
increases the likelihood that genes having a deleterious effect on
fitness will be expressed.”
The following quotation illustrates the way "among" is commonly used
these days, against the OED advice, with the intention of indicating
From NSF fastlane:
“NSF cannot achieve its ambitious goals for the science and technology
base of our country with its own resources alone. So we place strong
emphasis on working in partnership with other public and private
organizations engaged in science, engineering, and education and on
encouraging partnerships among
such organizations. We also seek partnerships across national
boundaries, working with comparable organizations in other countries
wherever mutually beneficial.”
The italics above are NSF’s. The “among” above, of course, should be
“between.” Taken literally, as I believe "between" and "among"
should be used, the statement implies that the intended partnerships
are not relationships between the aforementioned organizations, but are
themselves organizations, which are found when searching among these organizations.
a partnership can be an organization, for instance, one can invest in a
partnership, NSF's usage does have some potential to cause
confusion. Alternatively, if partnerships are not organizations, they
might be read as another sort of entity
found when looking among
organizations, just as one might find women among men in a room full of
From Padian, K. 2008. Darwin's enduring legacy. Nature 451,
"In Darwin's day, dispersal through migration was the only mechanism
thought possible for species to move among continents."
Most stylists, even if they disagree with my approach, would say that
"species move between
continents," not "among" them
because species move from one continent to another, not several
simultaneously. Following most rules, this statement suggests
that Padian is speaking of marine species that do not actually go from
continent to continent but are in the ocean among the continents.
How should "among" be used? Here's an
example: "Among the fish in a pond, one finds some that are
highly cryptic." Note that "between" would not work
here. With this usage, it is instructive to consider the quotation from
Wayne et al, above. "Breeding among close relatives" would not mean
that they are breeding with each other, but that given a group of close
relatives, one can expect to find breeding, and the consequences would
be deleterious. By substituting "between" above, it is specified that
they are breeding one with another, and not, for example,
If your copy editor or colleague insists that you stick with the silly
knee-jerk rule of "use between when there are only two items, but
among for more than two," send them to this page.
What Merriam-Webster Online has to say:
"usage There is a persistent but unfounded notion that
between can be used only of two items and that among
must be used for more than two. Between
has been used of more than two since Old English; it is especially
appropriate to denote a one-to-one relationship, regardless of the
number of items. It can be used when the number is unspecified <economic cooperation between nations>,
when more than two are enumerated <between
you and me and the lamppost> <partitioned
between Austria, Prussia, and Russia — Nathaniel Benchley>,
and even when only one item is mentioned (but repetition is implied) <pausing between every sentence to rap the
floor — George Eliot>. Among is more appropriate
where the emphasis is on distribution rather than individual
relationships <discontent among the
peasants>. When among is automatically chosen for
more than two, English idiom may be strained <a
worthy book that nevertheless falls among many stools — John
Simon> <the author alternates among
modern slang, clichés and quotes from literary giants — A. H.
See also the following.
betweenness between'ness n.
According to a widely repeated but unjustified tradition, “between
is used for two, and among for more than two.” It is true that between
is the only choice when exactly two entities are specified: the
choice between (not among) good and evil, the rivalry
between (not among) Great Britain and France.
When more than two entities are involved, however, or when the number
of entities is unspecified, the choice of one or the other word depends
on the intended sense. Between is used when the entities are
considered as distinct individuals; among, when they are
considered as a mass or collectivity. Thus in the sentence The bomb
landed between the houses,
the houses are seen as points that define the boundaries of the area of
impact (so that we presume that none of the individual houses was hit).
In The bomb landed among the houses, the area of impact is
considered to be the general location of the houses, taken together (in
which case it is left open whether any houses were hit). By the same
token, we may speak of a series of wars between the Greek cities,
which suggests that each city was an independent participant in the
hostilities, or of a series of wars among the Greek cities,
which allows for the possibility that the participants were shifting
alliances of cities. For this reason, among is used to indicate
inclusion in a group: She is among the best of our young sculptors.
There is a spy among you. Use between when the entities are
seen as determining the limits or endpoints of a range: They
searched the area between the river, the farmhouse, and the woods. The
truck driver had obviously been drinking between stops.
The above passage came up on interrogating "between" on the New York
Times site, and is attributed to
The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English
Language, Fourth Edition Copyright © 2007, 2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company.
Updated in 2007. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights
See also "Non-Errors"