If you ever felt uncertain whether to use amongst or among, do not worry. Their definitions are identical. The only difference between these two words is that among is more commonly used in American English.
Both among and amongst are prepositions. They can be defined as: in the middle of, surrounded by, counted within, affecting, or being part of a larger group.
The History of Among and Amongst
Shirley Jackson wrote a famous book of short stories called Life Among the Savages. On the other hand, the grand James Joyce opus Ulysses famously contains maddeningly detailed lists, and one example begins:
Amongst the clergy present were the very rev. William Delany, S. J., L. L. D.; the rt rev. Gerald Molloy, D. D.; the rev. P. J. Kavanagh…
It continues in that fashion for some time. These two brief examples show two well-regarded English language authors have each used one of these words. It begs the question: why do two nearly identical words with the same meaning exist?
The word among has existed all the way back to Old English in the first millennium CE. Amongst showed up later, in the era of Middle English. In that transition, some words in English developed additional sounds as adverbal forms. These augmented words exist in the language today: always, once, and unawares, for example.
During this same period, words like whence, whilst, amidst, and amongst can into use. All these words have an antique sound, but they remain common in modern English.
Amongst Throughout the Years
We will now take a little journey through the centuries to show that, even as the tone of writing changed, amongst stayed in the mix:
|Year of Performance or Publication||Title and Author||Quotation|
|These that I bring unto their latest home,
With burial amongst their ancestors
|1813||Pride and Prejudice
|It has the advantage also of being in vogue amongst the less polished societies of the world.|
|1836||The Pickwick Papers
|By the bye, our excellent friend there made a song when he first came amongst us.|
|1899||Heart of Darkness
|It came in the shape of an unrestful and noisy dream, remembered with wonder amongst the overwhelming realities of this strange world of plants, and water, and silence.|
|2007||Eat, Pray Love
|But doesn’t that make sense? That the infinite would be, indeed … infinite? That even the most holy amongst us would only be able to see scattered pieces of the eternal picture at any given time?|
Frequency of Use
Charting the number of uses of among and amongst in American English, there is almost no comparison. Among is far more frequently used. According to the Oxford English Corpus, there are roughly 10,000 uses of amongst in American writing compared to 300,000 uses of among.
There is a bit more parity between the two words when you focus on British writing. However, among remains more popular in the United Kingdom nonetheless.
Some writers and readers view amongst as over-wrought and pretentious because of its extra letters and relative rarity of use. Uninformed grammar scolds sometimes claim it is not correct. Rest assured, amongst is neither arrogant nor incorrect.
The Difference in Among vs. Between
What about differentiating among (or amongst) and between? These words indeed have similar meanings, but they are not synonyms.
You should use among for collective relationships, meaning a group of three or more. For example:
The train engine got lost among the scattered toys.
On the other hand, you would use between in a relationship of two. For example:
The letter was hidden between two books.
Related: Here another pair or words that are separated in spelling primarily by geography: Gray and Grey
Want to sharpen your business writing skills? Discover our acclaimed online courses.