Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we’re amid the action…
Q: Hi AWC, I’d like to know when to use “among” and when I should use “amongst” or even “amid”. Can you help?
A: We sure can.
Q: Well that’s lucky, or we could have been looking at some mighty awkward silences this week.
A: Yes. So let’s begin. “Among” and “amongst” are both valid words and essentially mean the same thing. “Among” is definitely more popular than “amongst” – especially with Americans (remember, they aren’t fans of extra letters). Both mean to be in the company of someone or something – and they’re both prepositions.
Q: What are prepositions again?
A: Basically they’re words that “position” things (spatially or temporally) in a sentence. So “under”, “in”, “through” and “among” or “amongst”. The “pre” part is because they mostly come before the noun/object in a sentence.
Q: Right. So can I use “among” and “amongst” interchangeably?
A: It’s a style thing. Here at AWC, we recommend only using “among” – as does the Fairfax Style Guide. However, many writers use “amongst” to add a little extra flourish or because they think it might sound better.
A: “Relax, you’re among friends.” But then, “talk quietly amongst yourselves”.
Q: I usually think of “amongst” as simply an older version of “among”. Almost Shakespearean.
A: Thou doth speaketh a great injustice. For “among” is actually the older word here – dating from about 1100AD. “Amongst” didn’t show up for another 500 years.
Q: So during Shakespearean times then?
A: Shut up.
Q: So it’s okay to see “amongst” in a literary context, but you’d recommend keeping to “among” most of the time.
A: Definitely. A newspaper reporting facts on a conference would say that “12 delegates from Sweden were among the attendees” – not “amongst the attendees”.
Q: So if “amongst” were a shirt it would be one of those puffy-sleeved pirate shirts.
Q: Speaking of Sweden, I’d have to say that Eurovision is among my favourite events each year.
A: Ah, that explains the picture of Eurovision up top. So again, you probably wouldn’t say it was “amongst your favourite events”. “Among” can usually do most of the jobs that “amongst” does – so you should always try that shirt on first. It may fit just fine.
Q: So what about “amid” and “amidst”?
A: Again, we strongly recommend “amid” instead of “amidst”. They differ from “among” by being defined as in the middle or surrounded by something (as opposed to being intermingled). And that something is usually an uncountable “mass” noun.
Q: Such as?
A: Well, you can be among your friends, but you’d be amid the chaos. You can count friends, but not chaos.
Q: I can count my friends on just one hand.
A: Not entirely shocked by that.
Q: So a final recap?
A: “Among” is the most common and implies an intermingling or moving through something (“the killer walked among us”) while “amid” has that more middling, surrounded-by vibe (“the killer escaped amid the confusion”) – usually defining the middle of a mass (uncountable) noun. Their understudies are “amongst” and “amidst” – which mean the same thing as their counterparts but many publications and organisations (such as AWC) avoid them for style reasons.
Q: But they ARE still real words?
A: Absolutely. Just use them sparingly to give your puffy shirt maximum impact when you do wear it.
Do you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore? Email it to us today!