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It seems amongst is quite often used as a synonym for among but it is supposed to sound more distinguished. Is there any difference in the meaning?

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My Scott Irish Father would always say "be a man amongst men". In his meaning: Stand out among other men and be of good character. –  Frank Ferguson Jan 4 at 1:26
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4 Answers

up vote 14 down vote accepted

This is similar to the relation between “while” and “whilst”, or between “amid” and “amidst”.

As with "whilst", "amongst" is:

  • chiefly British

  • "while using whilst runs the risk of sounding pretentious, it can sometimes add a literary or ironically formal note to a piece of writing" [American Heritage Guide]

  • "The general consensus among scholars of English is that whilst is an unnecessary and archaic word whose primary usage is by Britons who prefer what they perceive as a more 'noble' word" [Strunk and White]

  • recommended against by Times Online Style Guide: "amid, not amidst; similarly among, not amongst", by the Guardian Style Guide: "among not amongst", and by [Hansard Association of Canada]: "among (no -st)". And some Tameri Guide says: "among / amongst - In American English use among to mean within a group. Amongst is antiquated for in the middle of a situation or gathering."

Anyway, the summary seems to be that "amongst" is slightly pretentious (or "distinguished" as you say), but is common in Britain, and its meaning is almost identical.

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Oh BTW, Times and Guardian are in the UK, so if they recommend against it… –  ShreevatsaR Aug 29 '10 at 22:43
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With "meaning is almost identical" did you mean "completely identical"? :-) I mean, the tone of "amongst" might be more literary, ironic, or British, but the meaning of the words is exactly the same. –  Jonik Aug 29 '10 at 22:47
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@Jonik: See the "Tameri Guide" I linked to: it seems to distinguish between "among" for "within a group", and "amongst" for "in the middle of a situation or gathering", but holds that this distinction is antiquated. :-) –  ShreevatsaR Aug 29 '10 at 22:49
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Please can I point out that amongst is either pretentious or British. Your answer could be construed to mean that Brits are being intentionally pretentious when using amongst. Some etymology here –  Benjol Sep 3 '10 at 6:00
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@Benjol: But it does seem to be a little bit pretentious/archaic (or more formal at least) even in British English nowadays, "among" being way more common. –  Jonik Sep 3 '10 at 10:45
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"Among" is much more common in modern writing, at least in American English, so that probably explains why "amongst" might sound more "distinguished". (See this article which discusses the matter.) But there is absolutely no difference in meaning. (See e.g. Wiktionary: among, amongst.)

Also of note, the New Oxford American Dictionary lists "amongst" as chiefly British variant of "among". It does seem to be somewhat more common in British English (but still clearly less common than "among").

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For a historical perspective of among vs amongst in American English, I did an analysis using the Corpus of Historical American English (COHA).

I found that since even as far back as 1810, among was many times more common than amongst. chart showing the incidence of use of "among" and "amongst" since 1810

        AMONG   AMONGST Ratio
1810    439.38  47.41   9.26766505
1820    536.44  26.27   20.42025124
1830    593.99  34.63   17.15246896
1840    593.64  35.52   16.71283784
1850    562.6   19.43   28.95522388
1860    516.92  21.93   23.57136343
1870    457.33  16.97   26.94932233
1880    456.98  17.87   25.57246782
1890    492.07  19.9    24.72713568
1900    435.12  12.35   35.23238866
1910    377.13  11.37   33.16886544
1920    364.94  6.59    55.37784522
1930    345.13  6.67    51.74362819
1940    334.03  7.19    46.45757997
1950    317.42  7.29    43.54183813
1960    315.72  5.17    61.06769826
1970    324.12  7.6     42.64736842
1980    354.4   5.33    66.49155722
1990    287.46  6.8     42.27352941
2000    266     4.9     54.28571429

From this data, we see that both among and amongst have been becoming less frequently used overall since 1810, but that among has always been much more common. The ratio of among to amongst started at about 10 to 1 in 1810 and had risen to about 50 to 1 by 1920, and it has been pretty stable there since then. Amongst is definitely much less common than among in American English, but it is in no danger of dying out.

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I just wanted to celebrate because this is my 100th answer here. –  nohat Sep 3 '10 at 1:46
    
Perhaps we should compare the decline of among to the rise of equivalent phrases such as "in the middle of". –  ogerard Apr 13 '11 at 6:41
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I realize that I fall on the "British" side of the English language (Australian, actually), but I tend to use among mostly, but amongst when the following word starts with a vowel. So

Amongst others
Amongst all the choices

But

Among his friends
Among the choices

I have no references to back me up; just thought I'd add my $0.02 worth.

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I certainly catch myself doing the very same thing, and I can’t for the life of me tell you why. I just hope I never start saying mine instead of my when the next word starts with a vowel: ♬ “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” ♬ ♩♩ –  tchrist Apr 28 '12 at 15:15
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