#292: Between vs. Among — Which One Is Right? | English Grammar Lesson

Nov 1, 2023 | Grammar, Prepositions

Clear communication. Correct grammar. And avoiding mistakes. 

These are common goals among my students. And because you’re here, I know you have similar goals.

In today’s Confident English lesson, you’re going to take another step towards those by understanding two commonly confused words in English: between vs. among. What’s the difference? And how do you know which one is right?

I want to clear up any confusing advice you might find online. Give you practical examples to best understand when and how to use between or among. And, if helpful, offer some simple advice to follow when you’re unsure.

Getting them right is important for accuracy in conversation. Moreover, exams such as the IELTS and TOEFL often test your understanding of these easily confused words in English.

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Between vs. Among — Which One Is Right? | English Grammar Lesson

Why the Confusion?

First, let’s talk about why these two words are easily confused leading to common mistakes.

Between and among can have overlapping or similar meanings. It depends on how they are used.

For example:

  • He divided the ice cream between the kids.
  • He divided the ice cream among the kids.

In both cases, the words between/among indicate that the ice cream was divided or shared.

Oversimplified Advice

I want to highlight some advice often found online that is helpful but not entirely accurate. It can be useful when you want to simplify the rules if you feel unsure of which word to use in writing or speaking.

You might learn that

Between should be used only when there are two things/people. 

  • For example: He divided the ice cream between the (two) kids. 

And among should be used when there are more than two things/people.

  • For example: He divided the ice cream among the (3, 4, or many) kids.

However, this isn’t entirely accurate. The truth is, we can use between when there are more than two things or people involved.

For example: I can’t decide between chocolate, mint, or hazelnut ice cream.

This works perfectly well!

In just a moment, we’re going to explore between vs. among in-depth. You’ll see exactly when/how they are different. And when both can be used.

If you are ever unsure… if you’re in a conversation or writing an email in English… this oversimplified rule can be a useful guide.

And now, let’s get into the details. By the end of this lesson, you’ll know more about the words between and among than MOST native English speakers.

Use 1: Prepositions of Place

Both between and among can be used as prepositions of place

Like the prepositions in, on, and at, prepositions of place describe the location or position of something or someone in relation to another object or place. They help us understand spatial information and answer questions like “where” or “in what position.”

Between is used with 2 or more things that are distinct. Or separate.

Among is used when things or people are part of a group. And, in this case, when it’s a preposition of place, among is used ONLY when there are 3 or more.

Let’s look at some examples:

  • The state of Nebraska is located between Colorado and Iowa.
    • Note: The preposition between helps us understand where Nebraska is. 
    • Also, notice that we’re talking about distinct or separate states.
  • The book you’re looking for is on the shelf between the flower vase and the small statue.
    • Again, notice we’re talking about distinct or separate items.
  • I finally found my keys among the clutter on my desk.
    • Here ‘clutter’ is a mass or group of things. We don’t know what all the clutter is. It could be books, papers, pens, worksheets, notes, etc. Or all of the above. 
  • This restaurant is among the best in this part of the city.
    • Again, here we have a group — restaurants in the city — rather than individual restaurants.

Pop Quiz: Choose the correct preposition for the following sentences: 

  1. I dropped my earring _____ the dresser and the wall. 
  2. The building is ______ some of the oldest buildings on the east side.

Use 2: Sharing/Dividing

Just like the example sentences shared previously about ice cream, we use the words between/among to talk about what has been divided or shared.

And this is where they can be used interchangeably.

  • “They decided to share the prize money among/between them.”
  • “It’d be easier if we divided the tasks between/among the three of us.”

Use 3: Use Between For…

Comparisons/Relationships 

If you want to draw comparisons or highlight the relationships between things/people, between is the best choice. 

Here are some examples:

  • “I loved living in Paris, Washington D.C., and Monterey. That said, there are many differences between these cities.”
  • “There is a strong link between regular exercise, consistent sleep, and overall physical health.”

Timeframes

When describing a particular period of time or a range of time, English speakers will always use ‘between.’ This is particularly helpful if you are trying to schedule an appointment.

  • “The technician will arrive between 2:00 and 3:00 PM.” 
  • “The conference will run between November 25 and November 28.”
  • “They’ll be traveling through Spain between June and July.”

Choices/Decisions

When you want to highlight that you have to make a choice or are struggling to make a choice, the word between can help you explain what your options are.

For example:

  • “I’m having a hard time deciding between the grey pants and the navy pants.”
  • “She got accepted into all 3 of her preferred universities and now she needs to choose between them.”

Discussions/Negotiations

In the last category for the word between, let’s look at sentences that highlight discussions, negotiations, agreements/disagreements between two or more people/groups/companies.

  • “The negotiations between the 3 big tech companies broke down late last night.”
  • “When there’s a political disagreement between my sisters, I prefer to stay out of it.”

Use 4: Use Among for Inclusion/Happenings within a Group

Now let’s transition to when among is the best word choice.

If you want to highlight that something or someone is included within a group, use among. The same is true if you want to highlight that something is true of, exists in, or is happening in a particular group.

For example: 

  • “Nebraska is among several midwestern states in the U.S.”
    • Here we’re highlighting that Nebraska is part of a group of states.
  • “These countries are among the few selected to participate in the competition.”
    • Again, highlighting that only a few countries are in the group of those selected.
  • “Slang is popular among teenagers.”
  • “​​Friendships grow among those who invest their genuine time and energy.”

Use 5: Common Expressions with Between

Let’s end this lesson with a few common expressions – including idiomatic expressions – that include the word between. 

These are expressions you’ll often hear in English conversation.

Between you and me: 

This expression is often used when sharing secret or confidential information. It suggests that the information is meant to be kept private. 

For example, “Between you and me, I heard that Sarah is planning to resign before the end of the year.”

Between a rock and a hard place: 

This idiomatic expression describes a situation where someone is faced with two equally difficult or unfavorable choices. It indicates a dilemma. 

For instance, “I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place because I can’t decide whether to take the job with long hours or the one with lower pay.”

Read between the lines: 

When you read between the lines, it means you read something and try to understand the hidden or implied meaning. It suggests that there is more to a situation than what is explicitly or directly stated. 

For example, “She didn’t say it directly, but I could read between the lines and tell that she was unhappy.”

Fall between the cracks: 

This expression means that something or someone has been overlooked or forgotten because of a failure in a system or process. 

For instance, “The new policy caused some important cases to fall between the cracks.”

Practice What You Learned

You now have a COMPLETE picture of how and when to use between vs. among so you always know which one is right.

And, if you’re ever unsure, don’t hesitate to use the oversimplified rule we discussed.

To finish, let’s practice:

  1. Finish this sentence with the best word choice: We divided the inheritance __________ the grandchildren.
  2. Finish this sentence with the best word choice: Help me choose ________ which job offer I should accept. I can’t decide.
  3. Finish this sentence: Learning to say no is ______ the best advice I’ve ever received when it comes to self-care.
  4. Choose one of the 4 expressions you learned with between. Try to use it in your own example sentence.

As always, you can share your comments and questions with me below. (I’ll also share the answers to questions 1-3 in the comments below.)

~ Annemarie

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