The Grammarphobia Blog

Love amongst the ruins?

Q: In one of your postings, you said it was OK for young people to use less-than-perfect idiomatic English “among themselves.” It struck me that “amongst themselves” would be better, but after researching the subject, I’m not sure. What are your thoughts regarding the usage of “amongst”?

A: “Amongst” is common in British English, while “among” is preferred in American English. I’ve written a blog entry that touches on the subject. But in case you’d like a little more history, here’s the story.

“Amongst,” “amidst,” and “whilst” are rarely used in the United States, and for good reason. They mean exactly the same thing as “among,” “amid,” and “while,” which have been around longer.

Although the “st” versions may have an air of antiquity about them, the unadorned American preferences – “among,” “amid,” and “while” – are actually the older words.

“Among” dates from about 1000, and “amongst” from 1250, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. “Amid” is from circa 975, and “amidst” from about 1300. “While” goes back to about the year 1000 (spelled “hwile”), according to the OED, and “whilst” dates from the late 1300s.

My preference, which is universal in American English, is for the three older, simpler words.

“Among” and “amid” are prepositions, and “while” is a conjunction. It’s been suggested that perhaps the “st” endings were added in error, on a mistaken analogy with superlative adjectives, which end in “st” and “est” (like “biggest,” “most,” and so on).

For whatever reason, an “st” ending was tacked on a now-obscure preposition, “again,” which dates back to 993 and originally meant “in the opposite direction” or “back.” In this case, the old usage disappeared and the later formation, “against,” which showed up in the late 1300s, was the preposition that survived. The old “again” exists now only as an adverb.

Although “amongst” is common in Britain, it by no means has a monopoly there. In fact, several British writers, including Robert Browning, Angela Thirkell, and Evelyn Waugh, have written works entitled Love Among the Ruins.

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