Amongst Us, Among Them

Based upon the title of this article, regular readers of this site will most likely think that I am here to kill off “amongst.” Or maybe “among” if I am in one of those moods. But both assumptions are wrong. I think there is good reason to keep both words around—the same reason that we keep “a” and “an” around: euphony!

Let us start with where we should always start: Fowler’s Modern English Usage I actually use the Second Edition, edited, with typical controversy, by Ernest Gowers, who died a year after its publication in 1965. The original, all-Fowler all the time, First Edition was published in 1926 (7 years before he died). Unfortunately, I have never even see this original, despite the fact that it has been reprinted. It is now available in old-fashioned book form and 21st century electronic form for those interested. (Strangely, it is more expensive electronically.)

Fowler writes:

There is certainly no broad distinction either in meaning or in use between the two. The OED illustrates under amongst each of the separate senses assigned to among; it does, however, describe amongst as “less usual in the primary local sense than among, and, when so used, generally implying dispersion, intermixture, or shifting positions.” Such a distinction may be accepted on authority, but can hardly be made convincing by quotations even on the liberal scale of the OED. It is remarkable, at any rate, that one of the forms should not by this time have driven out the other.

That really is all that must be said. Under normal circumstances, I would just say we kick “amongst” out of our language and let that be that. “Amongst” has always sounded pretentious to me anyway. And if anyone wants to simplify their writing and speaking, they can simply forget that the word “amongst” ever existed—with much justification, I might add.

The problem is with how these two words combine with other words. In general, when either is followed by a word that begins with a vowel, “amongst” just sounds better. “We appreciate those amongst us” just sounds better than, “We appreciate those among us.” On the other side, “We hate the villains among them” sounds better than, “We hate the villains amongst them.” Try it out yourself. The difference is not as big as it is between “a” and “an,” but it is still there. Thus, it really does make sense to keep “amongst” around so that we can use it when we follow it with a vowel.

I must note, however, that there is something to be gained by using “among” when “amongst” is called for: crispness. Even though I found, “We appreciate those among us” jarring at first, on repetition, I find I like it more. Yes, it reads a little like advertising copy, but it also sounds a little like early Hemingway. It is nice—even comforting. What’s more, it is something that we could get used to very quickly.

For the time, I plan to use both approaches. In general, I will use “amongst” when it is followed by a vowel sound. But sometimes, I will use “among” in the same situation when I want a crisp, modern sound. Obviously, I am being very liberal on this matter—but it only goes so far. “We hate the villains amongst them” is always wrong. It sounds pretentious and dumb. So if there is ever a question of which to use, the answer is always “among.”

Important Update

I went to check out America’s own simulacrum of Fowler (Ha!), Bryan A. Garner in his Garner’s Modern American Usage. It has the following to say:

Most such forms ending in -st, such as whilst and amidst, are ARCHAISMS in AmE. Amongst is no exception: in AmE it is pretentious at best. E.g.: “Imagine a city where the electricity and water companies are owned by the local authorities and, thanks to progressive planning and construction, prices are amongst [read among] the lowest in the country.” Michael Dibdin, “Seattle Is the America Thatcher Ignored,” Seattle Times, 17 Jan. 1997, at B5. [Like he couldn’t have found a far shorter sentence to make this point? -FM]

Amongst is more common and more tolerable in BrE, where it doesn’t suggest affectation…

“More tolerable”?! What is this anti-English prat on about? Obviously, I take the side of Fowler—for two reasons. First, it’s Fowler. Second, it is just like Americans to hold on to old ways of doing things so as to seem cultured. At best, we can say that both the English and the Americans are trying to distance themselves from “amongst.” But I can’t leave the subject without noting that Garner does not discuss the euphonious aspects of the words. The king (Fowler) is dead; long live the king! (I hope to God it isn’t Garner!)

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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