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AP Radio News (March 3) narrated that:

“It’s anybody’s guess who win the best picture. It seems to be a close race between “American Hustle,” “12 Years a Slave” and “Gravity.”

I was under impression that ‘between’ is used for comparison, selection and differentiation of two things or objects, and 'among' is used in case of refering to more than three things or objects, since I learned so at middle school. As I was uncertain of the accuracy of my memory of more than a half century ago, I consulted dictionaries:

Online CED defines ‘between’ as:

prep, ad. in or into the space that separates two places, people, or objects.

However, online Merriam-Webster English Dictionary defines it as:

prep, : in the space that separates (two things or people)

: in the time that separates (two actions, events, etc.)

: in shares to each of (two or more people).

And, online OED gives reference to the use of ‘between’ for differentiation among two or more things:

  1. At, into, or across the space separating (two objects or regions):
  2. In the period separating (two points in time):
  3. In the interval separating (two points on a scale):
  4. With reference to a choice or differentiation involving two or more things being considered together: ex. You have to choose between two or three different options.

Is the use of ‘between’ instead of ‘among’ for differentiation of, and selection out of two more (five, six, ten) things or objects commonplace today? Is the distinction between "between" and "among" being blurred today?

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What is a selection between two alternatives but a kind of comparison? – Oldcat Mar 8 '14 at 0:31
up vote 6 down vote accepted

Nothing's changed much.

  • "I have sand between my toes."

  • "I never eat between meals."

  • "He hid it somewhere between the back door, the shed, and the oak tree."


  • "Among the meals that we had, several stand out as exceptional."

  • "Police paced among the crowd."

The above examples are from the 2002 reference grammar by Huddleston and Pullum et al., The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, page 636. Also, there's these excerpts from that page:

There is a well-known prescriptive rule saying that between is required when the complement denotes a set of two, and among when it denotes a larger set. This rule is based on the etymology of between, and is empirically quite unjustified, as is now recognized by most usage manuals.


The difference between the prepositions is thus not a matter of the size of the set denoted by their complement. It is, rather, that with between the members of the set are considered individually, whereas with among they are considered collectively.


Such verbs as choose, divide, share can accept both prepositions, though the collective interpretation of among will normally require a set of more than two: . . .

A decent usage dictionary, such as Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, will usually have an entry on this issue (e.g. "between").

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