The Preposition “Amid”

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This post was prompted by a headline in the Washington Post:

US deports former Nazi guard whose wartime role was noted on card found amid sunken ship

The phrase “amid sunken ship” struck me as peculiar usage—not because an article was missing— it is a headline, after all—but because I couldn’t understand why the headline-writer didn’t choose to use the simpler preposition, in.

Nothing in the article below the headline specified where in the ship the card was found. I saw nothing to indicate that the card had been found amidships, that is, “in the middle of a ship.”

Amid has had a very long run in English. It descends from Old English on middan, “in the middle of.” Its current uptick in newspaper headlines is owing to the COVID-19 pandemic. The word soared in use at the end of February 2020, when journalists made it the preposition of choice to use with the pandemic and matters relating to it. Previously more poetic than workaday, the word began to figure in numerous Google searches, spiking on March 1, 2020.

Now firmly established in the vocabulary of bad things happening, amid, plus a noun that denotes unpleasant things or circumstances, brings up millions of hits in a Google search:

amid the pandemic—about 294,000,000 results
amid lockdowns—about 21,300,000 results
amid virus—about 223,000,000 results
amid false claims— About 105,000,000 results
amid fears of more— About 101,000,000 results

The OED offers four definitions of amid as a preposition.

1. In the middle or center of. Originally with a genitive. Now only poetic.
Ex. “And all amid them [other trees] stood the Tree of Life.” Milton, Paradise Lost.

2. Of two things: Between. Obsolete
Ex. Leste heo thes deofles quarreaus habbe amidden then eien
Lest she have the devil’s arrows between her eyes. Ancrene Riwle.

3. More loosely, near the middle of a place, surrounded on all sides by objects. Chiefly poetic.

Amid used with a singular noun to mean “in the interior of a place” is labeled obsolete. Ex. “amid the street,” “amid the palace.”

Amid with either singular and plural nouns, the third use of amid indicates that something or someone is surrounded by something or placed within it.
Ex. (singular noun) Like Ruth amid the golden corn. (in the middle of)
Ex. (plural noun) A certain part of his work..must be done amid books. (surrounded by)

4. In relation to the circumstances which surround an action.
a. with singular noun, (indicating state or condition).
Ex. My spirit sleeps amid the calm.

b. with plural noun (indicating actions or events).
Ex. Amid general shouts of dissent.

Back to the headline that prompted this essay.

Before concluding my research, I made one last web search for the phrase “amid the ship.”

Because I didn’t expect anything to come up, I was surprised when I received 1,590,000 results for “amid the ship.”

However, none of the results I saw supported the WAPO’s headline-writer’s strange usage. The word ship was never used as the object of the preposition. In each example, ship was in the genitive.

amid the ship’s many, many features
amid the ship’s crew
amid the ship’s features

The same held true for other searches I made for “amid + singular noun.” In the examples that came up, the singular noun following amid was not the object of the preposition, but a qualifier of the object:

“amid the house” brought up “amid the house cleaning”
“amid the room” brought up “amid the room’s varying patterns”
“amid the yard” brought up “amid the yard signs”
“amid the boat” brought up “amid the boat show”

Bottom line: The preposition amid is useful when used to mean “surrounded by,” “in the middle of,” or “during.” Amid is best avoided when a simple in will do.

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