three cups of coffee in a row

Choosing Between

By Zahra Brown

Does a headline like “The Difference between Worry, Stress, and Anxiety” (Pattee) evoke any of those very feelings as you fret over the author’s wording? Were you taught that writers must use among when discussing three items or more? Read on to learn about the nuances of between and among and how to choose confidently between them.  

Claire Cook, in Line by Line, cites the Oxford English Dictionary to explain that, “while between is the proper and natural choice when the object of the preposition consists of only two, among is not invariably required for three or more, despite a widespread belief to the contrary. Although derived from the Old English word for two, ‘between has been, from its earliest appearance, extended to more than two’” (169).

Bearing this out, the entry “Between” in Merriam-Webster includes examples such as “talks between the three” (see 1a: “by the common action of: jointly engaging”) and “divided between his four grandchildren” (see 1b: “in common to: shared by”). Among can also be used in each of these senses; definition 6b, “through the joint action of,” corresponds to 1a; and definition 5, “in shares to each of,” to 1b (“Among”).

But if you compare the two entries further, you may be surprised to see how little they overlap. This is why many substitutions don’t hold up. According to Merriam-Webster, between “is especially appropriate to denote a one-to-one relationship, regardless of the number of items,” and among “is more appropriate where the emphasis is on distribution rather than individual relationships (“Among”). This means that while you could say that funding was being distributed among several congressional districts, you would refer to geographic boundaries between the districts. The boundaries separate one district from another, in the sense of between’s definition 2a, “in the time, space, or interval that separates” (“Between”). The dictionary provides no corresponding sense of among, so between makes the most sense, regardless of the number of districts.

The definition of between used in the headline quoted in this post is 4b: “in point of comparison of” (“Between”). Again, no such use is listed for among, so you can rest assured that the author of the headline, in choosing between prepositions, correctly chose between.

Works Cited

“Among.” Merriam-Webster.comunabridged.merriam-webster.com/collegiate/among.

“Between.” Merriam-Webster.comunabridged.merriam-webster.com/collegiate/between.

Cook, Claire Kehrwald. Line by Line: How to Edit Your Own Writing. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1985.

Pattee, Emma. “The Difference between Worry, Stress, and Anxiety.” The New York Times, 26 Feb. 2020, www.nytimes.com/2020/02/26/smarter-living/the-difference-between-worry-stress-and-anxiety.html.

Published 16 June 2020

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