Among/Amongst: Is there a Difference?

By Maeve Maddox

I first heard amongst used when I went to live in England. To my ear it sounds quaint and very “British.” I especially like it in the expression “to put the cat amongst the pigeons.”

If there ever was a difference between the two words, it is lost now.

According to the OED, amongst is

[l]ess usual in the primary local sense than among, and, when so used, generally implying dispersion, intermixture, or shifting position.

But as Fowler said many years ago,

Such a distinction may be accepted on authority, but can hardly be made convincing by quotations even on the liberal scale of the OED.

He goes on to speculate that the reason that one or the other form hasn’t fallen out of use may be owing to “the unconscious desire for euphony or ease,” and illustrates his opinion this way:

few perhaps would say amongst strangers with among to hand, amongst us is easier to say than among us.

For American speakers of English, the question is irrelevant. Americans say among.

I hope that British speakers will continue to use amongst whenever they feel like it.

YouTube video: Among vs. Amongst

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119 Responses to “Among/Amongst: Is there a Difference?”

  • Maeve

    Venqax, as ever, you are my hero.

    Just think, this post was published November 5, 2007. Since then, it has had 118 comments and 192 Likes.

  • venqax

    I’m glad to see a thread go on for so long. In this case, though, I wonder why it has. The statement in the original article says it all: “For American speakers of English, the question is irrelevant. Americans say among.” For Americans (not speaking for others) that really is definitive and ends the matter. “Amongst” is not standard in American English. Regardless of how one “feels” about it, among and amongst are notinterchangeable, and the detailed explanations of the distinctions or nuances between the two are interesting but completely fantasized. If you are an American writing or speaking in a formal venue (not casual, dialectical, or regional speech) then don’t say amongst or you will make an impression you probably don’t want to make.

  • Bill

    OMG y’all – this thread has been going on for almost 10 years! Quit arguing amongst yourselves and make all done. It sounds to me that one is free to use either and be considered acceptable…

    Ps Azadeh – 2007, the difference between climate and wheather (sic) is time-scale.

    Climate and climate change is how weather pattern trends are affected over a very long period of time (usually 100’s to 1000’s of years) and tend to be relatively stable (albeit changing), but local weather conditions in a given environment present themselves with much more variability over a shorter time frame (hours, days, weeks, etc.). Example of climate change is average ocean temperatures increasing a degree or two over the past 50 years. Example of weather change one can see swings in temperature of 50-60 degrees (F) in a given day, but is common for the time of year.

  • Maeve

    @Milo Edge
    How about “Usonians”? http://www.dailywritingtips.com/canadians-mexicans-and-usonians/

  • Milo Edge

    To give fluidity to the sentence… “Amongst” and “Whilst” works better for me.
    Personally I hate the most of the slangs ’em, lil, bout. “Among” is very closely to be one of them … Soon will be like “i d k” Oh! Right, so it is now. Please “Americans” do not be sluggish.
    P.S.
    No offence but say that you are American people is very pretentious, You ARE United States OF America people, I know is a little bit strenuous but what about… North-American (maybe the Canadians disagree) or something like that. You people are pretty good on words invention.

  • Barb

    If you use “thee”, thou, “thy” and “art” then using amongst is the correct and proper grammar. If you dislike using “amongst” then you should not use “thou”, “thy”, “art” or “thee” in your prose else you are mixing modern and archaic grammars together. And that sounds like crap to mine ears.

    YMMV

  • ANT B

    Hi, although I’m not English or American I studied the English language. I use “among” when it’s among-in e.g. in a group of twenty there were four women. Whilst I use “amongst” when it’s amongst -from e.g I was the only one chosen amongst a group of twenty.
    “While” is used as in “in the meantime” or “at the same time” whilst “whilst ” is used as in “on the other hand” or “to the contrary” e.gs. I ate an Apple whilst the others preferred to eat a banana; and, I ate an apple while my friends finished the game.

  • Jeff

    Thank you, John! We obviously received similar educations. My high school grammar textbook was originally minted in the 1930s (I kid you not) and our 5th Form English teacher let us know in no uncertain terms that “generations of misuse is hardly a valid argument for redefining useful words”. Even the OED could take note. Here are some simple rules we were taught…
    “Among” means you are part of the group, “amongst” means you are surrounded by a group you are not part of. The examples – “A Man among men”, “He was amongst the trees”. “While” and “Whilst” … just as simple… “While” means “at the same time”, “whilst” means “alternatively”. These can’t be interchanged, since they are almost antonyms! “I juggled, while riding a unicycle” versus “I juggled, whilst Sue chose to ride a unicycle”. So you shouldn’t say, “While this seemed a good idea at the time”… you should say “Whilst this seemed a good idea at the time”. While I’m on a roll, how about “Whom”? Another misunderstood yet still valid word… “HE rode the bike.” “WHO rode the bike?” “The bike was ridden by HIM”. “The bike was ridden by WHOM?” We haven’t ever considered dropping “Him” in favour of “He”, or dropping “Them” and using “They” – so why did people start picking on”Whom” and decide it was somehow archaic?

  • John

    I don’t think it has anything to do with British, Aussie, NZ, SA or American English. Neither is “amongst” an archaic form of “among”. In general, the words are completely interchangeable.

    However, in my usage of the two words, “amongst” indicates that a person/thing is in a group but not necessarily part of that group, whereas “among” indicates that they are in and part of the group.

    For instance, I would say “There is an England fan amongst the German fans”, meaning the England [football] fan was in a group of German fans but is not “part of the group”.
    On the other hand, I would say “The England fan is among other England fans”, meaning he is not only geographically in the crowd but is also part of the group.

    That would be my only distinction between the two words but it’s based more on what “looks” and “sounds” right, rather than any strict grammatical requirements.

  • Christopher

    “Amongst” is used thousands of times every day in the Catholic prayer, The Hail Mary.

    “Blessed art thou amongst women”.

    So it both sounds old, going with the “thou” but is also popular and very commonly used.

  • Arthur Cigar

    I like using among for present tense and amongst for past tense.

  • Dean Walsh

    I have always treated Among as referring to the general group and amongst as referring to the individual, so for example:

    Among equals everybody is treated the same.

    But: He is amongst equals now, so he is treated the same as everyone else.

    If you started with ‘amongst equals’ you would want to then give some indication of what happens to a specific entitiy whilst among equals rather than just describing a general rule or truism.

    Seeing as I’ve use the word whilst, its worth mentioning that the rule for this seems to be exactly the same compared to ‘while’, and is equally uncertain. To me while is also general and just means ‘during a certain period’ (while x is true y is false), whereas the use of whilst requires an individual agent to be engaged in something (whilst doing x don’t do y).

  • Marcus

    As an American, here is how I differentiate the two: amongst is “surrounded by” while “among” means shared with.

    “Amongst the other proto-humans, Neanderthals finished near the head of the pack.”
    “We shared the pizza among ourselves”

  • venqax

    That’s interesting Maeve. I always heard adverTISEment, just like adverTISE. I remember the first time I heard it pronounced with the second syllable stress and short I. I was taken aback and thought the person saying it (an older kid) was teasing. I have always wondered what the history of the pronunciation of that word is. Regardless of what I grew up hearing, I don’t know of any reason why it the stress should change to adVERTisment, with the stress and vowel changed from the root word. It always strikes me as a more natural British as opposed to American pronunciation. Of course stress does change with some word forms; compare/comparable, illustrate/illustrative, fatigue/indefatigable, maniac/maniacal.

  • venqax

    Big Earl: Amongst is fairly common in Southern American dialects, it’s just not SAE. That is probably the reason you use it. When something occurs naturally in a dialectical context, it doesn’t sound pretentious at all. If anything, the opposite. There is nothing wrong with dialects, you just want to avoid them in formal settings where SAE is appropriate. SAE is your Sunday suit. Your local dialect is everyday clothes, jeans and a tee shirt, etc. I have to say though, I’ve never heard an American use “whilst”, even a southerner.

  • Maeve

    Big Earl,
    I share your annoyance at pronouncements such as “Americans who say amongst are trying to sound intelligent.” American speakers who occasionally say amongst probably do it because it feels right at the time, and perhaps they grew up in speech communities in which amongst was usual.

    Recently I read this comment (in a reference I usually rely on for standard American pronunciation) about the pronunciation of the word advertisement: “ad-VUR-tiz-ment…now sounds stilted coming from an American.”

    I grew up around people who pronounced advertisement with the stress on the second syllable. It doesn’t sound stilted to me. The pronunciation with the stress on the third syllable, on the other hand, sounds mighty peculiar to my ear. Both pronunciations are acceptable in standard English. How they “sound” lies solely in the ear of the listener.

    I don’t attach much importance to opinions that object to acceptable standard usage on the grounds that it “sounds” stuck up or elitist or affected. Granted, amongst isn’t common in American speech and it would surely be edited out of copy submitted to an American publication, but it is not an error like “Him and his girlfriend left town.”

    Like all speakers, I have my personal irrational speech preferences, and they may slip through into my articles now and then, but my intention is to direct my objections to nonstandard usage. Some of the speakers who object to amongst and whilst as affected may think saying “The Smiths invited my wife and I to dinner” sounds classy.

    You go ahead and say amongst and whilst any old time the spirit moves you, you hear?

  • Big Earl

    I am an American from the South and I enjoy using “amongst” as well as “among”. I don’t, however, use the former in an attempt to sound more intelligent. I tend to use it only when it seems to sound better or roll off the tongue more easily than the latter. The same goes for “whilst” and “while”. One reason for this may be that I am a Christian and was raised reading the King James Version of the Holy Bible instead of a newer translation. I am also a fan of poetry and studied theater (theatre?) in college. All are contributing factors I’m sure. Anyway, y’uns be purdy, now!

  • Jimmy Grappone

    “Amongst” is very common amongst 1990s-era Jewish women in the Bronx. I’m basing this on Michael Myers’ famous SNL skit (sketch?) in which he/she hosts a local cable talk show titled “Coffee Talk” and Myers’ character encourages her guests and viewers to “Talk amongst yourselves.”

  • venqax

    @Tessa: As should be amongst and whilst if you are American. That is my point. They are not used in SAE, just like betwixt isn’t. Or amidst or wouldst. ALL of those are archaic in General American, and there is no “proper” way to use an archaic word unless you are drawing attention to the word itself, or are purposely imitating archaic speech for some reason. I realize that this is not true for British English. I am only referencing Standard American English.

    (Case in point, my American English spell checker has red-lined amongst as I write this.)

  • Tessa

    @venqax: I think ‘betwixt’ is almost totally used in poems. I mean, nobody uses it in speech, even formal ones.

  • venqax

    @John: Consider that there is a substantial difference between using archaic words and using “five-dollar” (meaning sophisticated or erudite) words. Using amongst or whilst instead of among or while is not erudite, like using *quondam* or *erstwhile* instead of *former*, or using the word reticent. It is, rather, affected or dialectal (British). Neither is standard American usage. When it comes to poetry, of course, you can get away with almost anything. But we are not usually writing under poetic license. Writing to a friend with whatever idioms or in-jokes you share is part of friendship, but whether you get a pleasant moment from it or not, in American English there is no “proper” way to use the –st forms of among or while. Or betwixt or amidst or wouldst for that matter.

  • John

    Well here is my two cents, and a chance to keep this thread going.
    I am aware of the disuse and antagonistic feeling/attitudes (generally) of my fellow Americans to using the “archaic” words in question. When speaking in everyday situations, I would not use amongst or whilst. However, I would use them when writing, as I learned a long time ago that formality and preciseness were more than okay when writing.

    Most teachers of English I’ve known were Lit majors who had a very broad, and highly poetic, education; and would be exactly the sort of people who would sigh and have a pleasant moment should any of their students properly use the -st forms in a homework assignment.

    In writing this I remember having been a pen pal of an English teacher. She related to me that she was going to ignore my first letter, but changed her mind when she realized I had correctly used the word reticent in my writing. She figured if I knew the word and could use it properly, how bad a person could I possibly be?

    Did I come across as pretentious to her by using five dollar words? I have no idea, but I would hazard a guess that she was pleasantly taken aback upon meeting someone to whom the English language was as important as she felt it was.

    That being said, I would aver that one must take into account one’s audience when speaking or writing, and not assume that just because you have an aversion to using a word that everyone else feels as you do. Thank you.

  • venqax

    So among alligators is too glottal?
    Amongst stallions would certainly not be off-the-tongue-rolling.

    I don’t know of any rule for -st endings that relies on pronunciation of the followingfor justification; as doesn a/an, e.g.. ?? Some things are easier to say than others, but that just IS. We don’t say it’s all right to make listes or that he askes a question just because lists and asks are harder to say. I mean we’re not pre-literate Anglo-Saxons. It’s not like Feather-stone-shaw is hard to pronounce, it was just long and people didn’t have much leisure time.

  • Sally

    I am late to this conversation, and I have skipped many of the comments above, so I don’t know if this has been mentioned, but it’s all about the glottal stop. The use of amongst before a vowel prevents that awkward ‘ng.’ English, in whatever part of the world it is used, is a rich and precise language. Let’s try to keep all of it.

  • venqax

    or cacophonous ? Probably cacophonous is better because it sounds worse.

  • venqax

    Just because some people use a word or phrase does not make it standard or formally acceptable. Amongst is used by Americans– Americas who speak some regional dialects that differr from Standard American English. It’s worth noting that some Americans use *afixin*– as in, “I’m afixin to come over there”– and *nuther*– “That is a whole nuther kettle o’ fish”– too. For formal SAE speech and writing, however, leave the ST on the porch when among the people as opposed to the folks.

    As for *whilst*, you have to be kidding. Have you ever really heard an American say whilst? If it exists at all it must be dialectical, but I’ve never even heard it in that context. Maybe rural or mountain southern, pre-WW2 or something? It’s being alive, even in the UK, speaks to the weakness of euphony in some cases, as it is about the most cacophonious word imaginable.

  • Tuesday’s Eyebrow

    Um. . . Americans still use amongst and whilst and all that, it’s just very rare, I for one prefer it over most cases. . . and I’m American, or United States-ian for people who want to get all up in arms over those of the US calling themselves Americans when technically canadians, mexicans, brazilians, peruvians, etc., etc., are american too.

  • Danny

    Those who insist that Americans seem pretentious when using amongst and whilst sound pretty pretentious themselves.

    I noticed myself using it earlier today and that’s exactly how I came to find this article. While whilst is not as common in my experience, amongst is as common as among.

    I use both as do many other people I know. There is no rule or reason. I think it’s actually because of the confusion that we use both. We never learned when to use one and when to use the other.

    I know there are teachers and such that will say one is wrong and the other is right. They’re wrong. There is no proper usage of either so just get over it!!

    As for using got in place of gotten. . . Yikes!! 🙂

  • Matthew

    There was a survey of dialects undertaken in England, between 1948 and 1961. The selected participants were locally born, elderly folk, from rural communities, possessing little formal education. The results of this survey can be found in map form, published as ‘An Atlas of English Dialects’, (Oxford; Upton & Widdowson). ‘Among’/’Amongst’ were among 😉 the words surveyed and mapped.

    Among, was consistently used throughout the north and west of England. Amongst was used in Cornwall, London and the Home Counties and the West Midlands. Isolated pockets of amongst were also found on the Norfolk coast and in the centre of the country.

    To quote from this study: “Amongst is, as might be expected, a development of among. During the Middle English period in particular pairs of words developed which differed only in the presence or absence of final s, this often signalling some slight difference in meaning. Sometimes the word with s was a new creation based on an earlier s-less form, as with besides from beside. Sometimes both words in the pair were new creations based on old components, as with backward(s) and forward(s). Some words which acquired an s like this went further, developing a t after the added s, resulting in such creations as against, amidst, whilst, and the word we have here, amongst. The tendency towards any phonetic change which makes it easier for a speaker to pronounce a word is known technically as euphony.”

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