Among vs. Between



Many of you sent in comments on last week’s Year-End Quiz. The question receiving the most comments was:

7. James is trying to decide between three college majors; accounting, finance, or economics.

Our point with this question was to demonstrate that the semicolon should instead be a colon. We didn’t anticipate the many comments exemplified by this one from Kathi M.:

[S]hould it not be “among” instead of “between” because there are more than two choices?

Those of you who have copies of both the tenth and eleventh editions of The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation will notice this among vs. between entry that was included in the “Confusing Words and Homonyms” section of the tenth edition:

among            involves three or more
  Example: Who among us has not lied?

between         involves just two
  Example: She couldn’t decide between Chinese and Thai food.

However, we dropped this entry from the eleventh edition (and from the Confusing Words and Homonyms section online) after determining that the distinction is more nuanced than simply how many options are involved.

The notion that between applies to two things and among to more than two is often, but not always, correct. Perhaps the misunderstanding derives from the fact that while among always applies to three or more things, it is only when those items are part of a larger group or are not individually named. Between is used for two items as well as for more than two when they are specific, individual items.

Examples:

I must decide between going to work sick or working from home.
(between applies to two things)

Corina is able to choose between Stanford, Harvard, McGill, and Oxford for her future school.
(between applies to more than two individually named items)

Corina is able to choose from among the best universities in the world for her future school.
(among applies to more than two items that are part of a group or are not specifically named)

There are many more examples we could list, but you probably get the idea.

To further complicate our former simplistic notion about between vs. among, the Associated Press Stylebook had this to say:

The maxim that between introduces two items and among introduces more than two covers most questions about how to use these words …

However, between is the correct word when expressing the relationships of three or more items considered one pair at a time: Negotiations on a debate format are underway between the network and the Ford, Carter, and McCarthy committees.

We hope you can see now that the error in question No. 7 was just the semicolon, and that you can understand why we chose to omit among, between from the eleventh edition of The Blue Book.

Posted on Wednesday, January 11, 2017, at 11:48 am

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