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Abolishing angst regarding among versus amongst

One of our readers raised the following useful query a few months ago:

What’s the difference between among and amongst?

Happy to help! In the spirit of the January sales that are just winding down here in the UK, I thought I’d make this blog a twofer and deal with while and whilst at the same time, given that the latter pair shares some features with among and amongst in terms of usage and form development.

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 If you are a US English speaker, therefore, and you don’t want to come across to your audience as out of date or, heaven forbid, linguistically la-di-da, then it’s advisable to opt for among.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.

While or whilst?

The word while was first recorded in Old English and it can be used as a noun, a verb, a relative adverb, a conjunction, or a preposition. Whilst is a later form and was first evidenced in the late 14th century.

Whilst is more limited in scope than while, and can only be used as a conjunction and relative adverb, so if you know the word you want is a noun, verb, or preposition, then while is the only possible option. As conjunctions and relative adverbs, while and whilst mean exactly the same:

  • during the time when something is happening; at the same time as something else is happening:

I recommend not watching this movie while eating.
Anna kept us all entertained whilst we were waiting.

  • whereas (used to show a contrast):

He was presented with a watch, while his wife was given a bunch of flowers.
Mark looks after the business side, whilst Diana is the expert in public relations.

  • in spite of the fact that; although:

 The thought of flying, while appealing, was not at the top of my list of things to do.
I detest violence but for once, whilst I still didn’t agree with it, I could understand it.

In the same way as happens with among and amongst, the chief distinction between while and whilst as conjunctions and relative adverbs is in respect of their usage.  While is far more common than whilst and is significantly more prevalent in US English than it is in British English. Here’s a table of the statistics, again using evidence from the OEC:

With only 6.9% of the occurrences of whilst appearing in US English, this form seems to be rapidly falling out of favour across the Atlantic. Bryan Garner states categorically that whilst ‘reeks of pretension in the work of a modern American writer’ and this stance is echoed by other authorities. So if you’re a US speaker or writer, you’d only be likely to use whilst if you were consciously aiming for an old-fashioned effect (for instance, if you were writing historical fiction). In all other contexts, while is the word to choose and thus avoid that dreaded reeking.

In British English, whilst incurs less opprobrium, but guides and dictionaries usually advise that while is preferable, given that it’s the most common form and may sound more up to date. If you’re writing for a particular organization or publication, you should always follow the relevant style manual on such matters.

*Among versus between

Some authorities say you should use between if you’re talking about a division or choice between two people or things, but among or amongst if the choice or division relates to three or more people or things. I promise to tackle the issue of the distinction (if any) between among and between at a later date (I feel another Myth Debunker coming on. . . ).

The opinions and other information contained in OxfordWords blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.