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Figuring out "among" and "amongst," among others

Amidst some emails, Professor Anne Curzan recently came across a question from a colleague about "amongst" and "whilst."

The colleague wanted to know: "Why did American idiom preserve 'amongst' but drop whilst?"

Fair question, though we're not so sure that American idiom has preserved "amongst." 

In Modern American Usage, lexicographer Bryan Garner addresses "whilst," "amongst," and "amidst." He calls all of them archaisms and goes on to say that "'whilst' reeks of pretension" and "'amongst,' in American English, is pretentious at best."

Garner does note that "whilst" and "amongst" are more common in British English. While that's true, that doesn't necessarily mean they're completely common either. "Among" and "while" are still more common in both British and American English.

When it comes to "among" and "amongst," there are theories about when each one should be used. One theory says that if the next word starts with a vowel, you should use "amongst." We're not totally convinced by this, since you could say "among us" just as easily as "amongst us."

It's also been suggested that "amongst" and "amidst" with the "st" mean that there's more scattering or dispersion of the subject. We're not buying that one either.

However, some usage guides say there is a useful distinction between "among" and "amid." Bryan Garner says that generally speaking, "among" is used with plural nouns and "amid" is used with mass nouns, i.e. singular nouns. He gives the example, "One is 'among' friends but 'amid' a crowd."

In the Dictionary of English Usage, Merriam Webster calls this distinction a "curious belief." That's because there are so many exceptions. For example, you could say "amid accusations" or "among the elite." These examples both sound fine without following the aforementioned rule.

Do you have a rule you follow for when to use "whilst," "amongst," or "amidst" or their counterparts? Let us know.


Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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