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I realize that this has been discussed elsewhere on the site, but I was interested in the use of the preposition "among" in a sentence from a story in yesterday's New York Times:

Research done by Emmanuel Saez, left, and Thomas Piketty has shown that inequality among the middle class and the rich is nearly as acute as it was before the Great Depression.

My first impression was that the sentence was incorrect, and that "between" should have been used instead. After thinking about it for a minute, however, it seems like the use of either preposition may be valid, but that the sentence would mean different things depending on the choice. With "between", the sentence is referring to inter-group differences between the incomes of the rich and the middle class. With "among", the sentence is referring to intra-group differences in income among the individual members of each particular group.

Honestly I have no idea if this interpretation is correct. Can someone please clarify this for me?

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I share your first impression, your subsequent analysis, and your wish for clarification. –  zpletan Apr 17 '12 at 19:56
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5 Answers

up vote 1 down vote accepted

It strictly is neither intra- nor inter-group, as the context shows.

As you seem to know already, it is between two objects, and among more than two.

The differences referred to are between (each individual member of one group) and (each member of the other) -- a many-to-many relation, so we need among here.

intra: The juniors are quiet, but the seniors fight among themselves.
inter: There will be a friendly match between the seniors and the juniors.
Our case: There are friends among the juniors and the seniors.
inter, 1-to-1: There will be boxing contests between the juniors and the seniors.

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-1 The context deals with two groups, each of which is singular. Additionally, it has to mean either inter- or intra-group relations; it can't carry both meanings at the same time unless it were zeugma/syllepsis. –  zpletan Apr 17 '12 at 20:37
Read the other answer for an enlightenment. Do NOT down vote just because you don't agree. Down vote when you have as much supporting references as you'd expect. –  Kris Apr 17 '12 at 20:45
I reread description of downvoting privilege; you're right about when to downvote. I apologize. If you edit, I will retract the downvote (the system's locked it in). However, I would also appreciate it if you would answer my initial objections, as I still think them valid. Thanks! –  zpletan Apr 17 '12 at 21:03
@Kris This is part of what I was confused about. Does the meaning of the prepositional object "the middle class and the rich" change along with the choice of preposition? Taken outside of the context of the story, are both preposition choices, and thus both meanings, valid? –  tel Apr 17 '12 at 21:23
I will edit to add some clarity. However, I am grappling with bad connectivity at this end, so not sure when my edit will actually get posted. –  Kris Apr 17 '12 at 21:33
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In the context of the article, the inequality is between the rich group and the middle-class group. I would have expressed it with between rather than among, but I acknowledge @Robusto's sagacity: "Rule of thumb: If you see it in The New York Times and it's not an obviouss typo, you should probably assume it's been copy-edited by people who are a lot fussier than you are."

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+1 for your obvious typo :) –  cornbread ninja 麵包忍者 Apr 17 '12 at 20:58
@zpletan that is indeed what I assumed, but I try to take such rules of thumb with a grain of salt –  tel Apr 17 '12 at 21:23
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Many writers insist that "between" should be used only when you're talking about two things or two people, etc. and that we use "among" when we're talking about more than two. However, "between" is actually quite useful and acceptable when describing specific differences that exist both individually and severally between one thing and several others. "Among," according to the OED, expresses differences that exist in a vague and collective way. So a lot depends on what you mean to say, but "between" might be acceptable in the sentence above if it was referring to specific differences.

Authority: The New Fowler's Modern English Usage edited by R.W. Burchfield. Clarendon Press: Oxford, England. 1996.

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Do I read you correctly that it is impossible to tell inter- vs intra- from the sentence alone? –  zpletan Apr 17 '12 at 20:40
Nope. In the sentence above "among" is correct, but, generally speaking, "betwen" could be correct in other cases. –  Elberich Schneider Apr 17 '12 at 20:50
I'm still confused—Does the sentence on its own speak of inter- or intra-class inequalities? –  zpletan Apr 17 '12 at 20:52
I think the sentence was referring to 'inter' and was expressing differences that exisist in collective way. So 'among' is correct. –  Elberich Schneider Apr 17 '12 at 20:58
If that is the sense of the sentence, what sentence would have indicated intra-group relations? (I'm just trying to figure out the difference, as I still don't understand how one could tell inter- from intra- from the sentence alone.) –  zpletan Apr 17 '12 at 21:05
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I think I have to go out on a limb here and say this is poor phrasing by NYT. Having read the article, it seems clear to me that the two inequalities being referred to are between the middle class and the bulk of the populace, and between the rich and the bulk of the populace.

Using among suggests that inequality has increased within each of those two groups, considered in isolation, which is not consistent with anything else in the article (or indeed common sense).

If it had been between, that would mean the difference between the wealth of the middle classes relative to the rich has increased. That's at least a plausible observation to make, but again, it's not consistent with anything else in the article.

I don't actually think there is a truly correct short form of words to convey the intended meaning, but personally I would go for...

inequality by the middle class and the rich.

(i.e. - caused by the middle class and the rich taking a disproportionate share of the wealth)

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Can you explain your opening paragraph? I thought the article's premise was that the inequality is that the rich earn far more than the middle class. –  zpletan Apr 17 '12 at 22:29
@zpletan: I see nothing in the article to suggest that interpretation. Although Saez and Piketty's graph shows that the top 1% have more of the total wealth than they did, say, 50 years ago, it also clearly shows that the next 4%, and the next 5% after that, also have greater shares of total wealth than before. It seems to me it would be crass in the extreme for NYT to use rising inequality to mean the middle classes have taken more than ever from the remaining 90%, but not as much as the really rich 1% have. –  FumbleFingers Apr 17 '12 at 22:42
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This is a mathematical/statistics question.

Put the samples of all men and women together and compare their height differences:

Compare the disparity of heights among men and women.


Separate the samples of men from women and then make the comparison between distinctly male and female statistical cumulative functions of height.

Compare the disparity of heights between men and women.

A closer allegory:

Compare the disparity of childishness among children and adults


Compare the disparity of childishness between children and adults

Obviously both effectively compares children and adult behaviour, but they differ in the process-flow of comparison. One requires that children and adults be lumped together before comparing, where the age differences of the lumped samples spontaneously/naturally create an adult-child segregation.

Whereas, the second mode would separate children and adults to perform the comparison between the two groups.

It is also an SQL question:

select gender, average(height)
from AmongSamples
group by gender


select difference(m.height, w.height)
from Men m, Women w
where m.comparisonKey = w.comparisonKey
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