I have read Grammar Girl's excellent post on the difference between "between" and "among", but I've run into a scenario that has confused me. I used the sentence "Compare heights between these people." for a specific set of people, but someone told me I should have used "among". His explanation was that "these people" is a generic list and thus "among" is the proper choice.

I thought that the one-to-one relationship between a height and a person was central, as we are comparing people with one another based on this attribute. Are we then treating the group as distinct members, and would this make "between" correct?

  • 8
    First, you need to realise that neither "Compare heights between these people." nor "Compare heights among these people." sounds like something a native speaker would say. 'Compare the heights of these people' is the natural way to say this. Mar 27 '15 at 17:05
  • 3
    @EdwinAshworth's comment correctly, I believe, captures the fact that height is a property of a person, not something that person has or does. "Compare opinions of Obamacare among these people" (Note, not "Compare opinions of Obamacare between these people"), while "Compare the hair color among these people" sounds awkward, while "Compare the hair color of these people" does not.
    – Dave Land
    Mar 27 '15 at 17:09
  • GG is not an especially useful reference. Try this: [Between] is still the only word available to express the relation of a thing to many surrounding things severally and individually, among expressing a relation to them collectively and vaguely: we should not say ‘the space lying among the three points,’ or ‘a treaty among three powers,’ or ‘the choice lies among the three candidates in the select list,’ or ‘to insert a needle among the closed petals of a flower.’
    – tchrist
    Apr 2 '15 at 21:55

Between is only used when you are dealing with two-ness and know that you are dealing with two-ness. If you compare two things (be they groups, individuals, whatever) and there is no room for confusion, you use between.

Otherwise, you use among.

Example: This morning, I got up, dressed, put on a pair of shoes. As I have only the two pairs of shoes, I decided between my options because I know as a fact that I have only the two pairs (and don't do anything strange like put on the left-brown and the right-black and call it a third pair).

Then I run into a friend who has many pairs of shoes. He simply cannot conceive of anyone owning only two pairs of shoes. He doesn't know I only have two pairs, so he asks if those were the best choice I could make from among my options.

We are both correct in our usages.

  • This is wrong: per the OED choices are always between, never among. There can therefore never choose “among” several options any more so than you can judge “among” them or select “among” them. Those are all wrong, and it must be between instead. OED: “[W]e *should not say ‘the space lying among the three points,’ or ‘a treaty among three powers,’ or ‘the choice lies *among the three candidates in the select list,’ or ‘to insert a needle among the closed petals of a flower.’
    – tchrist
    Apr 2 '15 at 22:02

Between's root word means "two." When you have more than two, you use among. Go back to shoes for a minute.

My friend's in a hurry. He flings open his shoe cupboard. He just grabs any pair from among all of them. He just selects from among all of them. Right? We both agree on that?

I'm in a hurry. I fling open my shoe cupboard. I don't care which of my two pairs of shoes I grab. I just pick from between them.

The OED examples seem forced. I wouldn't say "space lying among the three points." Nor would I write it. I'd be much more likely to write/say "space lying inside the three points." If I was striving to be as correct as possible, I'd say "the space lying inside the triangle defined by the three points."

Similarly, I'd say/write, "a treaty agreed to by three powers" or "a tripartite treaty."

As for the closed petals. How many petals are there? Seriously. Say it were some kind of a Venus Fly-Trap. The "petals" would number two. You'd put the needle BETWEEN the two petals. No one would say, "Take that needle, and put it among the two petals." No one.

Now, say it were a tulip and had five (I think tulips have five) petals. I don't know where the OED is getting its needles, but you can only put a needle BETWEEN two petals at a time. If you were to approach the tulip from above, could you, in that circumstance, say that you were placing the needle "among" the petals? I might agree to that one case. But I would probably backspace over it and retype "Place the needle so that it is surrounded by the petals."

Between describes conditions involving only two. So yes, with my limited shoe choices, I choose between my two pairs of shoes. My friend, not knowing I only have the two pairs, uses among.

(You know something. This is probably the most interesting thing I've discussed in about a month. Thank you very much for participating in this. God knows, I need the mental stimulation.)

  • The OED doesn't have a panel deciding on how we should use words. It has researchers investigating how we do use them. "A treaty between England, France and" gives 200 000+ Google results, and 'a treaty between England, France, and Holland' certainly sounds unremarkable to me. "A treaty among England, France and" gives 2 distinct Google results. No matter what 'rule' you were taught at school, what the etymological derivation of 'between' is (check that of 'antisemitic'!), English is primarily an agreed means of communication, and minority preferences should not be foisted on the majority. Apr 11 '15 at 23:00

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