When I learned about prepositions in junior high school about 70 years ago, it was taught that “between” is used to describe two things and “among” is used with three things or more. Is my memory correct?*
Thank you for your question. Your memory is excellent. And your teacher gave some helpful guidance on using these two important prepositions.
Prepositions - words or groups of words that are used with nouns, noun phrases, or pronouns to show direction, location, and so on - are a difficult subject. They sometimes have clear uses and differences, but sometimes they share meanings with other prepositions. We will explore that idea later.
Let’s start with among. Many of the uses of among center on the idea of a group of people or things.
For example, news stories for over a year have had language such as:
The coronavirus is spreading quickly among members of the community.
In this case, among means in or through a group of people. Among can also be used to show that a group of people or things is involved in, or affected by something, as in:
The new rules have led to increased competition among local businesses.
And among can mean in the presence of a group of people. News stories often carry language such as:
The prime minister was standing among his supporters.
Between often carries the idea of a separation, as in:
The ball is between the tree and the house.
In this case, between means in the space that separates two things - the tree and the house.
Between can also mean in the time that separates two actions or events, as in:
If you want to stay healthy, you should drink plenty of water between meals.
Sometimes a similar meaning
In many cases, among is used for a group of things or people, and between is used for two things or people.
But the difference in meaning is not always so clear.
In some cases, between and among have pretty much the same meaning. Consider these two statements, both of which appear in Merriam-Webster’s Learner’s Dictionary:
They compared the cars but found few differences between them.
They compared several new cars but found few differences among them.
In both cases, the preposition shows the group of things that are being considered or compared.
As with many issues in English, there are general rules or meanings.... and there are exceptions to those general rules and meanings. If you have a question for our staff of teachers, send it by email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
And that’s Ask a Teacher!
I’m John Russell.
John Russell wrote this lesson for VOA Learning English. Bryan Lynn was the editor.
*For the purposes of the report, Akira’s note has been paraphrased.
Words in This Story
exception – n. a case where a rule does not apply