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?
This is similar to the relation between “while” and “whilst”, or between “amid” and “amidst”.
As with "whilst", "amongst" is:
"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.
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.
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.
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 all the choices
Among his friends
Among the choices
I have no references to back me up; just thought I'd add my $0.02 worth.
"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").
It is usually used in a metaphorical sense rather than a literal one. The ball falls amongst the trees in the forest (the ball might not literally be between the trees); the ball was found among two trees (literally between the trees).
protected by tchrist♦ Feb 22 '15 at 0:33
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