When you’re among friends, you talk amongst yourselves, right? Or is it the other way around? Among and amongst are variations of the same word. Among is more common in American English, while amongst used almost exclusively in British English.
History and Meaning
Amongst may feel more archaic to speakers of American English, but among is actually the older word, dating back to Old English (circa 1000 CE). Amongst, in comparison, showed up in the language in Middle English (circa 1200 CE).
Among and amongst are synonyms, sharing the same meaning. Both are propositions that refer to being surrounded by or in the middle of something that serves as the object of the preposition. You could say, “We’re among friends here,” or “She stood among the ruins of an ancient civilization” to express these meanings.
You can also use the words when you’re dividing objects between three or more people, as in “We have extra chocolate chip cookies. Why don’t you divide them amongst yourselves?” Among and amongst are both acceptable and grammatically correct in any of these cases. The choice between them is largely a matter of stylistic preference.
Overall, among is more commonly used in both American and British English. In British English, while amongst is acceptable in most uses, among is generally preferred. Some British publications, including major newspapers, issue style guides that insist on using among.
While some older grammar guides insist that amongst is the appropriate choice before a vowel, the word’s actual use in modern English doesn’t bear this out. The word dates back to a time in English when -s was added to some words to create adverbs. Thus, all way became always, and unaware became unawares (as in “He was taken unawares”). Other holdovers from this minor grammar rule from the past are whilst and amidst, both of which also are far more acceptable in British English than in American speech or writing.
Take a look at this example of amongst used appropriately in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice: “Her aunt now called her to look at a picture. She approached and saw the likeness of Mr. Wickham, suspended, amongst several other miniatures, above the mantelpiece.” This use of amongst to place one small painting in the middle of similar paintings is grammatically correct. It could also be replaced with the word among without any loss of meaning or style.
In both speech and writing, among and amongst are interchangeable. Both are grammatically correct and mean the same thing. However, amongst is often considered old-fashioned or pretentious in American English, so you may want to avoid it.