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Among vs. Between
Many of you sent in comments on last week’s Year-End Quiz. The
question receiving the most comments was:
7. James is trying to decide between three college majors; accounting,
finance, or economics.
Our point with this question was to demonstrate that the semicolon should
instead be a colon. We didn’t anticipate the many comments
exemplified by this one from Kathi M.:
[S]hould it not be "among" instead of "between" because there are more than two choices?
Those of you who have copies of both the tenth and eleventh editions of The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation will notice this among vs. between entry that was included in the “Confusing Words and Homonyms” section of the tenth edition:
among involves three or more
Example: Who among us has not lied?
between involves just two
Example: She couldn’t decide between Chinese and Thai food.
However, we dropped this entry from the eleventh edition (and from the Confusing Words and Homonyms section online) after determining that the distinction is more nuanced than simply how many options are involved.
The notion that between applies to two things and among to more than two is often, but not always, correct. Perhaps the misunderstanding derives from the fact that while among always applies to three or more things, it is only when those items are part of a
larger group or are not individually named. Between is used for two items as well as for more than two when they are specific, individual items.
I must decide between going to work sick or working from home.
(between applies to two things)
Corina is able to choose between Stanford, Harvard, McGill, and Oxford for her future school.
(between applies to more than two individually named items)
Corina is able to choose from among the best universities in the world for her future school.
(among applies to more than two items that are part of a group or are not specifically named)
There are many more examples we could list, but you probably get the idea.
To further complicate our former simplistic notion about between vs. among, the Associated Press Stylebook had this to say:
The maxim that between introduces two items and among introduces more than two covers most questions about how to use these words …
However, between is the correct word when expressing the relationships of three or more items considered one pair at a time: Negotiations on a debate format are underway between the network and the Ford, Carter, and McCarthy committees.
We hope you can see now that the error in question No. 7 was just the semicolon, and that you can understand why we chose to omit among, between from the eleventh edition of The Blue Book.
We also wish to thank those of you who pointed out that lectern was misspelled in question No. 1. (Extra credit is awarded to George C. who paid close attention to our blog Words in Flux and pointed out that one stands on, not behind, a podium.)
In addition, we thank the alert readers who noted that the question and answer were reversed in No. 10. “A couple of dollars more could make a big difference” is the correct sentence.
You may click on the link to view the corrected and improved version of 2016’s Year-End Quiz.
Because of the e-newsletter’s large readership, please submit your English usage questions through GrammarBook.com’s “Grammar Blog.”
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With thanks to cartoonist Jeff Hobbs.
Learn all about who and whom, affect and effect, subjects and verbs, adjectives and adverbs, commas, semicolons, quotation marks, and much more by just sitting back and enjoying these easy-to-follow lessons. Tell your colleagues (and boss), children, teachers, and friends. Click here to watch.