What is the Difference Between Among and Amongst?

By Maeve Maddox

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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.

Quotations with Among and Amongst

… the legal entities known as trusts and too little time on the kinds of conversations that will help ensure that trust among siblings is maintained when parents are no longer around to settle disputes.? … (www.nytimes.com)

… storefronts in downtown Robersonville in North Carolina, one of 26 states where deaths now outnumber births among white people. … (www.nytimes.com)

ETHICAL CONUNDRUMS: If all the world’s wealth were divided equally amongst its population, how much would everyone receive? (www.theguardian.com)

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119 Responses to “What is the Difference Between Among and Amongst?”

  • bryan

    I was browsing through some of the comments and noticed some bandwagon racism going around. Sure, everyone loves to hate on Americans, but why? For the people saying something along the lines of Americans hating English and therefore rewriting it, you are the worst. Geeze, you act like we band together and change the spelling of words for fun.

    Color comes from the Latin word “colos.” Why was a ‘u’ added to the word when it became English? Who knows. Why was the ‘u’ taken out for common usage in America? Who knows. When did this occur? Too long ago for anyone to still be alive.

    The same goes for other words. It’s all good and well to know the differences, but to accuse someone of butchering a language? Ridiculous.

  • Andrea

    Nice to see a single post resulting in over three years of mostly civil comments. Bravo, all.

    I’m new here but had to comment. My use of “amongst” resulted in a paper being knocked down a few points during my master’s program in rhet comp. The professor wrote: “Andrea, no one has used the word ‘amongst’ in the last hundred years. You must drop the ‘st’ at once.”

    Five years later, I’m still using “amongst” quite regularly, thank you very much.

    The same professor also chided me in front of the class, saying very matter-of-factly that The Long, Hot Summer was adapted from a Tennessee Williams play. (I was right. It’s Faulkner’s novel The Hamlet, though the tones could be considered a bit Williams-esque.)

    He has a PhD and tenure. I’m a blogger. Go figure.

  • Jim

    Tangential comment about things that bother me:

    Many Australians don’t seem to be able to pronounce “a” when it ends a word. When I travelling abroad and I met Australians, I was not from Canada but “Cana-der,” and American friends were from “Amerik-er.” I suspect this trait is probably a regional thing.

    It’s not related to speech patterns, but I also find the Fact that many Older Americans seem to like to Capitalize Random Nouns when they are trying to make a Point when Writing. I notice that in older advertisements and posters, this was common. More evidence of the influence of advertising?

  • Carrie

    I love listening to people speak. Their word choice, how they couple words together, pronunciation, economy vs extravagance, delivery… I love the insight it gives to how each persons mind works. I cannot see how there could ever be too many words or variations to words for a speaker to choose from. I welcome them all.

  • Fiona

    @Sue: Watch the patronising tone, love. Reflect on how it feels to be on the receiving end of the imperative.
    Perhaps you should declare exactly why “some … Brits” have issues with glottal stops.

  • venqax

    For what it’s worth, as an American this is somewhat amusing, but moot. Like the thread on “programme vs program”. We say while and among. We don’t say amongst or whilst at all.

    That, so it won’t ruffle too much down, is a generalism. Yes, there are Americans who say amongst and whilst. But I know of nowhere that wouldn’t be considered an eccentricity, something done for purposeful impression of some type, or simply an affectation. There are also Americans, and others I assume, who still carry walking sticks, wear dress gloves, monocles, spats and top hats. Mr. Peanut pops to mind. What whilst and amongst– and while wer’re at it, betwixt– are to current Am English is what Mr. Peanut is to a modern peanut in 3-button suit, with Lasik surgery, and a nice wrist watch. So there’s how peanuts can be illustrative.

    While…it is true you could discern distinct meanings for the words, they are not in fact used in such a way with any kind of consistency so the distinction a writer might intend is irrelevant. Similar distinctions like healty/healthful, complex/complicated etc, are already on life-support. And I don’t know that, historically, there has been any such difference between among/while and their st versions.

  • SB

    As a non-native English speaker, I have always had the feeling that whilst would be the more appropriate form to replace a word like whereas. Does that make sense? Also, whilst appears to be used to express ‘while doing something’ without a verb: whilst talking, whilst walking. Am I wrong?

  • DW

    Extraordinary and excellent! I love the fact that this post has been kept alive for so long – 3 and a half years! Thanks to everyone for their posts which have been informative and entertaining to say the least.

    We can celebrate the fact that there is such huge interest in the topic and as long as there is, love of words, the quirkiness and nuances of language and attitudes to variants will never die. Hooray!

    Great site – thank you.

  • Chris (or, Buster)

    American’s use amongst, well Catholic Americans.

    Thou art blessed amongst women.

  • Linda Moore

    This is impressive! While (not whilst) writing a note on facebook I used the word amongst. It had me curious as to which version of the word would be ‘more correct’ if that is even possible. Upon googling my query I found myself here reading all of these posts regarding the difference. I am astounded at the length of time the discussion has lasted. From humorous to erudite; I have gleaned, well, I’m not quite sure! But truly enjoy learning more about our lively and interesting language 🙂

  • Sean

    Don’t you hate it when Americans synonymise “Quaint” with being British.
    Although we must give them their dues… being American and not stereotyping the world just wouldn’t seem right.

  • Fred in Raleigh

    I’m an American southerner living near the east coast and have heard (and used) “amongst” all my life in certain situations. One poster here compared it to the use of jargon in the instructional field, an assessment with which I strongly disagree. As I think now about where “amongst” is preferred, I actually think OED’s distinction makes sense.

    Let’s get one thing straight: The words are interchangeable and yes, how the chosen word rolls off the tongue will be a primary determinant of which version is used. But I would use “amongst” in the following example:

    “Your sunglasses are somewhere amongst all these boxes.”

    Here is where I would use “among.”

    “Among the few serious contenders for the position, she’s got the the best shot.”

    “Amongst” works in the first example because it implies that the item of interest is to be found somewhere in a collection that is widely dispersed or at least difficult to comb through.

    “Among” works in the second example because the field of interest is limited or well-contained.

    I don’t know why OED is right, but I just think it is.

    “We’ll need to split the cost among just us three.” sounds better than “…amongst just us three.” However, it sounds better to say “Amongst the hundreds of employees there are are a few that really stand out as leaders.”

    As for “whilst”, it does sound rather antiquated. If I were to use it, I could envision the following diaglogue:

    “Whilst I peel the potatoes, would you mind slicing the carrots?”

    “Sure, and ‘whilst’ we cook, Junior and Bobby can go outside and joust.”

  • James Newman

    Simon Townley – Typical of a British journo to speak about sounding pompous while telling us how you like to edit them out because you “find them a bit fuddy-duddy”.

    Who made you leader over the English language?

  • Geoffrey Van Wyk

    ‘Peter is among the policemen’ means Peter is a policeman.

    ‘Peter is amongst the policemen’ means Peter is in the midst of policemen, but not necessarily a policeman himself.

  • venqax

    @GVW: That reminds me of the time I was told that “burned” is the past tense of the verb “to burn”, while “burnt” was an adjective . So, it is proper to say the fired burned all night, and touching it would give you a burnt finger. The distinction is concise and clear, but I don’t think it is true.

    In General Am, “amongst” is simply non-standard. It is common in the southern American regional-dialect.

  • Rose

    Somehow I found myself looking for a new word for my novel, and ended up reading most of this conversation.

    From reading this it occurs to me that Canadians seem to have a tad of both, however favoring they are of american english, but perhaps that is just where I live, or the people I associate myself with.

    I must admit that the word ‘amongst’ along with countless other words, seem to wane over time. While amongst is still one of the words that hasn’t seemed to go extinct, it really isn’t all that common. It is as if our lexicons are slowly dying, making people seem more remedial as time passes.

  • venqax

    What about between vs. betwixt? Peter is between the boxes means Peters is in a space that exists with boxes on either side. Peter is betwixt the boxes means Peter is between boxes and it is AD 1623.

    Don’t worry, Sean. You guarantee that “quaint” isn’t the only thing Americans will think about the British.

  • Diane

    Actually, I grew up in Nova Scotia (Canada), and we always said ‘amongst’, not because we were pompous but because it was our natural way of speaking. My family roots are deep in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and extent to Scotland, England, Ireland and Germany. When I began writing, I was told I was wrong to use ‘amongst’. Now I know it’s not wrong, just diffent. I use it in my novels because it is ingrained in our dialect, not because it makes me sound pompous.

    I also grew up saying spelt, not spelled. I can’t wrap my tongue around two LLs and ED. Spelled still comes out spelt.

  • Kevin Beach

    For no authoritative reason, I have always thought that(in BrE at least), “among” referred to something or someone being with things of a different kind, e.g. “cat among the pigeons”, “a giant among dwarves”. However, “amongst” relates to one among a number of the same kind, e.g.”He is a giant amongst men”, “Blessed art thou amongst women”.

  • carolyn Swanson

    I grew up in the southern state of Arkansas. “er” was always substituted for “a” among those who were uneducated. For instance. My sister’s name is Eula and many family member called her Euler. Indiana was Indianer. My father went to live in Indianer.
    they also put the “st” on words like among. Idea was ider. I have no ider where she is. Orkra was orkrie. Go pick some orkie for dinner. Soda water was sodie water. Want was wont. Do you wont a bottle of sodie water. Fellow is feller. Who was that feller out yonder.

  • RW McCoy

    I only stumbled on this one today as I was editing some questions and answers for a friend. The sentence, ‘She is also popular among other celebrities.’ instantly grated on my sense of good English, but the problem wasn’t grammar. It was me.
    As a Canadian, I wasn’t even aware that ‘amongst’ was supposedly British English. Actually, it is widely used in Canada and is probably common in most Commonwealth countries.
    Personally, I am in the OED camp with the idea of ‘amongst’ being dispersed or intermixed. I also suspect, I prefer to use ‘among’ at the beginning of a sentence and ‘amongst’ elsewhere.
    In the mean time, I will be on my guard of correcting others.

  • William Hooper

    Mark Stewart’s comment above nailed it. (April 12, 2008 6:35 pm)

    I couldn’t state it any better. “Amongst” and “whilst” are fine for our British and Australian brothers but for an American to use these words sounds affected. (If any American politician uttered these words he would lose votes.) Perhaps it’s irrational and unfair but “amongst” and “whilst” have the effect of pretentiousness. To my American compatriots don’t go there!

  • Colin

    William Hooper states “If any American politician uttered these words he would lose votes.” Perhaps so, William, but it says more about the
    state of our nation than the politician in question. While we somehow
    accept the garbled elocution of a Sarah Palin, we sneer at the eloquence
    of a Barack Obama?

  • Rich

    @azedeh: climate is over longer periods of time and larger distances. Weather is what’s going on at a certain time and a certain place. So “it’s windy and 90 degrees” describes weather, but “it’s usually windy and about 90 degrees in this area at this time of year” is talking about climate. You cannot predict the weather from climate except in statistical terms. “It will probably be windy today.”

  • Ben

    Just as an aside, there’s a spaceship in Iain M Banks’s novel “Surface Detail” called the “Sense Amid Madness, Wit Amidst Folly”. I have been wondering while reading it whether there is a particular grammatical reason why he uses amid in the first clause and amidst in the second, or whether it was just some unconscious thing. Is it a quote from somewhere? Anyone?

  • venqax

    Good question. Maybe it should just be, “Senst Amidst Madnesst, Witst Amidst Follyst” and we be donst withst it. As the meanderings and speculations here illustrate, the -sts simply add nothing, if they meant something at some point no one knows what it was, and there is no reason to retain them, except for a primarily UK-based perceived value in retaining old things that no longer have any purpose or ….hmmm….now that it comes up…j/k 🙂

  • leni namwocam

    It may be too late to chip in to this post, but I’d just like to point out that:
    a) “Cat amongst the pigeons” sounds better to me, as a UK native;
    b) Sometimes it has more to do with euphony, as in the Snatch example;
    c) While I tend to agree that the use of “amongst” and “whilst” may be “typical of a writer reaching for an appearance of sophistication by the use of pompous styling rather than effective or substantive content”, I must admit to doing this in my work as a translator/editor, where the actual content is the client/author’s remit and my job is to make it look/sound good. I think it is justfiable… for instance, if Thor in the Avengers movie spoke in an Alabama twang, it wouldn’t quite come off.

  • venqax

    While I tend to agree that the use of “amongst” and “whilst” may be “typical of a writer reaching for an appearance of sophistication by the use of pompous styling rather than effective or substantive content”,

    I don’t. It appears from the above that distinctions between among and amongst and while and whilst are pretty much standard in British English. So, if the speaker/writer were British I would not assume anything pompous in making it (unless, of course, it was clearly used incorrectly by British standards). In an American, OTOH, were to say amongst or whilst, it would raise an “alert”, depending on context. Amongst, e.g., is common in some dialects of Am English, but it’s not standard. I don’t know of whilst being common in any American speech. So, yes, coming from an Am it probably would sound affected, maybe depending on context.

  • Kevin Matthew Jones

    I haven’t read all of the comments above, but I use this general rule of thumb: ‘among’ in most contexts, but I use ‘amongst’ when the following word begins with a vowel, because as the article states, it flows better and sounds less awkward.

  • Brian

    Deborah Kean on December 1, 2010 2:40 am
    To Andee,
    Regarding Microsoft spell check – the default as installed in all the language schools and offices where I have worked for the past 5 years, is US English.
    The latest iteration of Word is even worse – it isn’t possible to change that default! (I have always tried to change it wherever I am, to NZ E).
    So, a curse on Microsoft,

    You can get around Microsoft’s dictatorship against non-American English speakers by going into Windows Explorer, to the Office directory, mouse click properties, and remove the read only attribute of the entire folder. Then change the language settings before going out of WE properties.

    And the way American companies treat non-American English speakers shows that Americans are (cultural) dictators.

  • Lindsay

    I hope we can all agree that just because somebody uses a word all the time doesn’t make it proper grammar. So the “I use the word ‘amongst,’ because it sounds better” defenses don’t really fly with me–particularly from the Americans. (I’m American and have no opinion on British usage.)

    I realize the two words are interchangeable, but I think use of the word “amongst” does sound pompous in many instances. Just say among; it’s more commonly used here in the U.S. and it essentially means the same thing. I usually only find it pompous, though, if it is consistently used by the same person in place of the alternative, “among.”

    And interestingly enough, my browser’s spell check keeps marking “amongst” as incorrect.

  • venqax

    But how can that posssibly be? Others on here have told us that Americans make up a tiny portion of English speakers in the world, and everyone outside the provincial USA speaks British. So how can Americans be “cultural dictators”?

    I think the British competitors with Microsoft should come out with their own programs and such. That would teach ’em.

  • Emily

    I’m American and I say amongst probably about as much as I say among.

    Also, I would like to point out that “proper grammar” is not the same as “accepted grammar.” Accepted grammar is the reason languages morph and evolve. It’s what makes languages so amazing. They live and change!

    I believe a stickler for grammar who says one way of saying among vs. amongst is proper grammar and therefore the only acceptable form doesn’t take evolution of languages into account. In writing, stick to the “proper” grammar of the vernacular. In speech, our dialects and quirks in speech are what give us unique voices.

  • James

    I use amongst and whilst and I’ve lived in New Jersey my entire life. I also use among and while. My parents use among and while exclusively, and I don’t know anyone from England or the rest of the Commonwealth…
    Guess I’m just odd.

  • John

    This is funny to me because I’m an American and I use amongst without thinking. I didn’t know I was doing anything unusual until spellcheck told me… I think I picked up “amongst” whilst listening to Lord of the Rings on tape several times.

  • otto mannix

    The use of ‘amongst’ in America most often sounds pretentious, so i rarely use it, although i like the example in the earlier comment “He was one amongst a hundred spectators.” It flows nicely. Also ‘amongst’ can be used to humorous effect here in the states. An example would come to me if I were drunk in a bar!

    Americans do use ‘gotten’ as opposed to ‘got’, when we bother to use the past perfect, but i changed over to ‘got’, not to sound british, but it seems cleaner.

  • Martin

    Wow. So many comments.

    A student in Taiwan asked me what the difference between among and amongst was and I came up with these two sentences.

    “The killer is among these three suspects.”
    “There is a killer amongst us.”

    My parents are British but I grew up in Canada. Both of these sentences seem perfectly natural to me and I would prefer among over amongst and vice versa in each sentence. I suppose I could be familiar with “amongst us” as a set phrase. English is spoken in chunks and we might expect some objects to collate with among and some to collate with amongst depending upon what sounds better to the speaker.

    Oddly enough the explanation that amongst refers to something moving around whereas among implies some sort of choice actually works with these two sentences… but that could just be a coincidence. 🙂

  • Martin

    “The use of ‘amongst’ in America most often sounds pretentious, so i rarely use it, although i like the example in the earlier comment “He was one amongst a hundred spectators.” It flows nicely.”

    Yes! I feel the same way about “amongst us”!

    Let me try another sentence.

    “To find what he was looking for he had to search amongst thousands of objects.”

    Oh dear. How about this one?

    “The object he was looking for was located among the thousands of objects he searched through.”

    Yeah, the idea that amongst refers to “dispersion, intermixture, or shifting position” definitely works for me!

  • Martin

    “‘Peter is among the policemen’ means Peter is a policeman.

    ‘Peter is amongst the policemen’ means Peter is in the midst of policemen, but not necessarily a policeman himself.”

    Yes, this is true too. “The killer is among these three suspects” implies that the killer is one of the suspects but “The killer is amongst us” does not necessarily imply that one of us is the killer, only that the killer is with us in the same room!

  • venqax

    @Martin: These are interesting disitinctions, and could be useful to you in your own writing, but like the difference between healthy and healthful, they have no independent authority in SAE. In American English, there is no distinction denotatively between the definitions of among and amongst. Connotatively, amongst is colloquial or simply old-fashioned. “Peter is among the policemen” (not a very likely way of putting it in SAE, to begin with) could just as well mean he IS a policeman or he is surrounded by them.

  • 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.”

  • 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!! 🙂

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • venqax

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

  • 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

    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.

  • 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

    @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.

  • Tessa

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

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