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Grammar and Usage

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Amid the Soapsuds

How to Use "Among" Correctly

A while back, I compared fewer to less (See Tip: “Still Another Three Words Many Writers Misuse”), and we saw that fewer applies only where we can separate something, like trees, and that we use less only where we cannot separate something, like shade.

A similar relationship exists between among and certain other prepositions, like in, amid, within, and through. If we can separate the items, we should use among; if we cannot separate them, we should use another preposition. Below, we can’t separate news or debris:

 

Among In today’s news from Baghdad is a piece predicting a Kurdish victory in Kobani.

First responders searched among through the twisted debris for survivors.

 

I would be correct (two ways), however, to write, “This Tip is among the shortest I have ever written.” Among is correct because we can separate the Tips and count them. And this Tip is one of the shortest.

 

So we have countable things and uncountable things; but grammarians love to taunt us, so they add a third category: mass or collective nouns. This is where the point gets stickier. A collective noun is one you could count if you wanted to and had the time, but few of us would bother; for example, “Basque sheep-herding families” or “the elite of America’s blue-collar workers.” The grammarians tell us that among should accompany these collective nouns because collective nouns are “notionally plural.” (God help us.)

 

In The Yearling, published in 1938 and awarded the Pulitzer Prize, author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings writes:

 

He began to be sick again and let the boat drift among the cat-tails.

 

I suppose, if we wanted to, we could count all of the cattails, so among would be correct. But in the following example, we should use another preposition because we cannot count fast enough to get all the bubbles:

 

He opened one bright eye among amid the soap-suds and winked at his son.

 

Use among with things we can count (even if we would have to spend hours counting), and find another preposition for those we cannot count.

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About Gary Kinder

Gary Kinder

WordRake founder Gary Kinder has taught over 1,000 writing programs for AMLAW 100 firms, Fortune 500 companies, and government agencies. He’s also a New York Times bestselling author. As a writing expert and coach, Gary was inspired to create WordRake when he noticed a pattern in writing errors that he thought he could address with technology.

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