5

Consider the following two versions of a question:1

  • Version 1: What is the difference in meaning between "[to be] not invited" and similar negation forms?

  • Version 2: What is the difference in meaning among "[to be] not invited" and similar negated forms?

Personally, I think Version 1 might subtly suggest a Star Topology (see below) with the target sentence "[to be] not invited"at the center. And Version 2 might subtly suggest a more free-form comparison like the Mesh or Fully Connected, with the target sentence simply "one among many":

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:NetworkTopologies.svg
Between approx equal "Star" and among approx equal "Fully Connected"?

Don't get me wrong: I do think this is quite subtle, not always applicable, and I don't think anyone would intuit such a "network topology" meaning without further explanation.

So the main question is, are both grammatically correct? If yes, is there a semantic difference to choose one over another, perhaps as I suggested? Or does the plurality aspect of between and among trump other semantic and stylistic issues?


1. In my question https://ell.stackexchange.com/questions/26520/does-placement-of-not-have-significance-not-to-be-verb-to-not-be-verb-to-be, another user provided a very helpful edit. However, the change of the word between to among prompted this question.

  • Here is how my brain works when I hear between and among. Between is about two things. This doesn't mean that there must be only two things in total. When there are more than two things, the between will make me think of each of the relations between all those things as a relation between each pair of them. On the other hand, among is about more than two things, and it makes me think of more complex relationships, where I can't think of the relation between each pair of those things clearly. – Damkerng T. Jun 18 '14 at 9:35
  • So I think the Star topology reminds me of between, while the Fully Connected can remind me of either between or among (though I think I still tend to think of the relationships as between; to think of it as among, I need something more messy). Consequently, I prefer the between version to the among one in your edited question. This is just my opinion, though. – Damkerng T. Jun 18 '14 at 9:35
  • 1
    If you have CGEL, check out page 636, "It is, rather, that with between the members of the set are considered individually, whereas with among they are considered collectively". See also this blog post, The real difference between “between” and “among”, which I believe that it's amount to the same thing as the usage notes in Wiktionary. – Damkerng T. Jun 19 '14 at 9:28
  • 1
    CGEL emphasizes individually vs. collectively, whereas the blog post and Wiktionary add vagueness (or as the post put it, "[among is used to express] a weaker, vaguer, more nebulous". I guess that my intuition is close enough to the ideas explained by the three sources. (Sorry that I'm too lazy to write an answer.) – Damkerng T. Jun 19 '14 at 9:28
2

This is tricky. Conjunctions and prepositions are among the most difficult meanings for semanticists to describe objectively, and this is why they often have the longest entries in dictionaries.

Note that in the previous sentence, between would not have worked in place of among.

Between implicitly suggests a cline or planes of possibilities - it can be an n-dimensional plane, and whatever it is you're talking about lies somewhere in relation to other, points on it.

The very first sense of 'between' on Collins echoes this sentiment:

  1. at a point or in a region intermediate to two other points in space, times, degrees, etc

This is likely why you have intuited that between seems to suggest a star topology in network parlance.

Among(st), on the other hand, is subtly different - it merely suggests a relationship to other things, without making claims to where it stands. If you consider a scatter plot, you could say that any of the points lies amongst others.

A sample scatter plot

There is the possible exception of outliers and those points which lie on the edge of the groups, but that becomes a much more difficult issue to manage, akin to Sorites Paradox. My response to that is that the following sentence seems perfectly grammatical and sensible:

He was the smartest by far among those students in his age group.

The definition for among(st) on Collins suggests a couple of relationships:

  • in the midst of
  • in the group (of)

Of course, definitions can quickly become circular - that is, how does "in the midst of" differ from "between"? In the midst of seems to invoke a sense of positioning, rather than just that of relationships in general. The positioning can be based on anything, really, but among seems more felicitous when used in the description of vague constellations of meaning and relations, and between in those that are a bit more explicit.

"In the group of", on the other hand, is a much cleaner relationship.

Overall, the difference between between and among seems to be a fuzzy one - in the preceding clause, among would not have worked in place of between. I would say that between is better-suited for more explicit relationships, and among(st) for messier, more vague constellations of relations.

In the case of your two examples, I would say that the first means that you're comparing "[to be] not invited" with other forms. That is, "[to be] not invited" vs form-1, "[to be] not invited" vs form-2, etc.

If the question had read "what are the differences in meaning amongst negated forms (for example [to be] not invited)?", between/among(st) would both work well.

  • @user.jimsug, So which do you think is better? Version 1 or Version 2? Your answer has some very interesting points, but I'm having a little difficulty understanding if you have (or don't have) a preference for one or the other based on the points you have given. Thanks - – CoolHandLouis Jun 19 '14 at 3:03
  • @CoolHandLouis answer edited. – jimsug Jun 19 '14 at 3:09
  • Version 1 reads much better. "Difference among" doesn't really work as good English, because of the set relation I mentioned in my answer (which has been downvoted for some odd reason). – Alastair Maw Jun 20 '14 at 19:24
  • @AlastairMaw Agreed. Not sure who downvoted your answer, but I suspect it's because you didn't quite answer the question, instead changing the question and answering that. – jimsug Jun 21 '14 at 1:09
-1

This works much better negated: I.e. What are the similarities between/among

In that instance, "between" would suggest similarities between discrete pairs of things, whereas "among" would suggest shared similarities across the whole set, or large subsets.

  • Please could you provide a reason why you have downvoted this? I'm trying to point out that "difference among" doesn't work due to the set relationships, but "similarities among" does. I think the contrasting use helps a good deal in understanding the subtlety here. – Alastair Maw Jun 20 '14 at 19:26

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