Somewhere in the English Language Posted by gary on Jul 27, 2017 in English Grammar, English Language, English Vocabulary
Where do you find something in a group? Between, among, amid, betwixt, amongst, and amidst are all similar prepositions. What’s the difference, and when should you use one over another?
I have a lot of books. No. Really. I have hundreds and hundreds of books in my library and bedroom, packed neatly onto shelves, stacked several rows deep in front of those shelves, stored in boxes, and piled on top of those boxes. So, you can imagine the futility I sometimes face when I need to find one particular book. Will I find it between the rows of recently read fiction, among the stacks I made last December when I was cleaning, or amid the jumble I made from the last time I looked for one specific volume?
Between and Betwixt
There is a common misconception that between can only be applied when talking about two items.
You’ll find the jar of pickles between the jars of mustard and salsa.
There is even an etymological justification for this belief. Between is derived from the Old English word betwēonum, which meant “by two”. Samuel Johnson, in his dictionary, wrote that between should only be used when talking about two items. However, Mr. Johnson has long been ignored, and his “rule” is seen by many (such as the Oxford English Dictionary) as outdated. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t rules surrounding the proper use of between. More on that later.
Betwixt is regarded as an outmoded word, though it remains in use, and means the same as between. They have similar roots and origins, with both words first appearing in English at about the 12th Century. In common, modern speech, betwixt is often seen as pretentious. Betwixt survives largely due to the phrase betwixt and between, meaning neither one thing nor the other, but something which falls at a midway point in comparison.
His book is best described as something betwixt and between a mystery and a fantasy.
Among and Amongst
As you might imagine, if between is commonly used when discussing two items, among is therefore thought to be properly used when discussing more than two items.
Alfred Hitchcock is considered to be among the finest filmmakers who ever lived.
However, as we’ve seen, between is equally appropriate in many instances when speaking about more than two items. So, what’s the difference?
When referring to a specific number of identified items in a group, between is appropriate.
Between my friends Chris, Rafael, and Kumar, you will find that Kumar has the best sense of humor.
If a group of things or items is regarded collectively, without any specific number, among is usually the right choice to make.
Among all my friends, I cannot say which one is the funniest.
Also, when referencing specific times or numbers, you always use between.
Let’s meet for coffee between eight and eleven o’clock.
He was looking for actors between the ages of 40 and 65.
Amongst is often interchangeable with among but, like betwixt, is often seen as outdated and pretentious. It is also rarely used by Americans, compared with British speakers of English. If you hear or read the word amongst, it is probably being used by someone born and raised in England.
Amid and Amidst
Amid means to be surrounded by something, and is often thought, quite wrongly, to be interchangeable with among. The word comes from Old English, and even contains the word mid, or middle. Use amid when speaking or writing about indistinctive nouns. This distinguishes the word from among, which applies to multiple, but distinct nouns.
His words were lost amid the noise from the cacophonous engines.
She sought the truth amid all the rumors.
Amidst, like betwixt, is more commonly used in Great Britain, rather than in the United States, and is probably more formal than amid. Both words are, however, interchangeable.
If you ever travel between the 48 contiguous states of America and find yourself among the wide-open plains of the mid-west, gaze up at the night sky and lose your thoughts amid the heavens.
Want to hear more? Sign up for one of our newsletters!
For more language learning advice, free resources, and information about how we can help you reach your language goals, select the most relevant newsletter(s) for you and sign up below.