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?”

  • 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.)

  • 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.”

  • 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!

  • 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?

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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”

  • 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).

  • Arthur Cigar

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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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?

  • 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.

  • 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

  • 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.

  • Maeve

    @Milo Edge
    How about “Usonians”?

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

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