Among or amongst?
One of our readers raised the following useful query a few months ago: What’s the difference between among and amongst?
Among or amongst?
Among is the earlier word of this pair: according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it first appeared in Old English. The variant form, amongst, is a later development, coming along in the Middle English period. Is there any distinction other than spelling between among and amongst or are they completely interchangeable? The good news is that, with regard to their meanings, there’s no difference whatsoever between among and amongst. They’re both prepositions which mean:
- situated in the middle of a group of people or things:
We saw a factory tucked in among the houses.
Dad has agreed to cook and that frees me up to mingle amongst my guests.
- belonging to or happening within a group:
These companies were among those to indicate lower earnings.
I was amongst the last to leave.
- indicating a division or choice between three* or more people or things:
The grant will be divided among the six participating institutions.
It certainly did not mean that this income is shared out equally amongst the population.
Having said this, among and amongst are not identical in terms of their usage. Firstly, among is far more common than amongst. Secondly, it’s more than twice as likely to occur in US English as it is in British English. Here’s a table giving a breakdown of the facts, based on the evidence of the nearly 2.5 billion-word Oxford English Corpus (OEC):
As the table shows, amongst is comparatively rare in US English but, with nearly 10,000 instances, this spelling is by no means unknown across the water. However, many authorities (such as Garner’s Modern American Usage) and language blogs state that, in US English, amongst is now seen as old-fashioned, and even ‘pretentious’. If you are a US English speaker, therefore, and you don’t want to come across to your audience as out of date or, heaven forbid, linguistically la-di-da, then it’s advisable to opt for among.
British English speakers will find that amongst generally raises few such objections. Just a word of warning though: if writing for business or publication, check your in-house style guide. Even some British organizations (such The Guardian and The Times) declare that among is the preferred spelling.
To summarize, whether you opt for among or amongst chiefly depends on where you are in the world and which variety of global English you speak. Some older grammar guides state that amongst is typically followed by a word starting with a vowel, but this assertion isn’t supported by the evidence of current English as found in the OEC.