This is what Ellen DeGeneres jokingly said in the Oscars this year:

I did a little bit of research and between all the nominees here tonight, you've made 1,400 films. And you've gone to a total of six years of college. I'm kidding. Kids, stay in school.

Meryl has been nominated for an Oscar a total of 18 times. It sounds good, but if you do the math, between dresses, hair and makeup, that's hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Can either of these two instances of "between" possibly be substituted for "among"?

  • 2
    Both............ between should be used to choose between two options. Apr 10, 2014 at 0:56
  • 1
    The second example seems really unusual/awkward to me. What he means is when you add up [the costs of], but usually in such constructions we use between to mean when you divide [some total] between [the recipients/constituent parts]. For a single word in OP's example, I'd use including or counting, not between. Apr 10, 2014 at 1:09
  • 1
    @FumbleFingers Fairly common in AmE ...
    – David M
    Apr 10, 2014 at 1:32
  • Maybe Ellen isn't so grammatically conscious? But definitely, I don't see her usage of between correct. @FumbleFingers, I noticed that you used he instead of she. Can we use the masculine form of the pronoun for her gender? I don't actually know. Apr 10, 2014 at 1:34
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    @LesterNubla I'm sure it was a slip of the tongue, or a typo. Ellen is a woman, and she is the correct pronoun. I disagree with FF that the second example sounds really unusual or awkward I understand its meaning and it's something I'd say myself. Although she was presenting the Oscars live, I'm sure the jokes were prepared weeks ahead. Ellen had all the time in the world to hone her lines.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Apr 10, 2014 at 3:26

1 Answer 1


A few points to bear in mind:

  1. This is not writing; this is a native English speaker speaking English. Aloud.
  2. This is a professional comedian performing comedy. Into a microphone.
  3. This is a person being paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to say this. On national TV.

So "correct" is hardly the issue.
In fact, maybe being "correct" isn't such a great idea after all.
So much for "correctness".

As to the original question, only the first example may alternate with among

and among all the nominees here tonight, you've made ...

That's a pretty normal usage, summing up a single variable over a multivariate set, and it really doesn't matter whether between or among gets used, since neither of them is designed for statistics.

The second one, however, is a different usage, and I don't think it works with among:

*among dresses, hair and makeup, that's hundreds of thousands of dollars

Note that this is not a single variable summation -- this is multivariate accounting,
and this refers to the bottom line, not just one row out of many.

My best guess is that it's a shortening and paraphrasing of something like

including all the factors - dresses, hair, makeup, etc -- that's hundreds of thousands of dollars

and between got chosen as most obvious preposition, the one that (almost) nobody would notice.

This has, of course, nothing to do with the zombie rule mandating dual between vs plural among.
But then, that's not really a rule of English anyway.

  • Thanks, John. Despite your heads-up about the so-much-for-correctness, Ellen was "correct" in her usage of "between," wasn't she? :) As for the first example, you said either "between" or "among" would do. But if you had to choose, which would you plump for?
    – JK2
    Apr 10, 2014 at 4:00
  • Why ask me if I really meant it? Would you believe me if I told you? Apr 10, 2014 at 4:11
  • What's not to believe? :)
    – JK2
    Apr 10, 2014 at 4:13
  • As far as I can tell, you didn't say clearly which is better in the first example. And I think no two different words could be equally acceptable in a given context.
    – JK2
    Apr 10, 2014 at 4:18
  • I didn't really consider the fact that it's a spoken context when I first looked at this. I certainly didn't consider the fact that in some (other) contexts, "between" encompasses two objects where "among" would normally be used with three or more. Looking at it again now, I can't think of any short replacement for "between" in OP's example #2 that would pass muster for me in a formal written context. In a spoken context I'd almost certainly opt for what with, but I can't help feeling that particular usage sounds more BrE than AmE. Apr 10, 2014 at 12:58

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