Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

"Amongst," "Amidst," "Whilst": Pretentious or Quaint?

The headline on a recent article in a Tennessee newspaper said the local teachers were "among best-paid" in the state. The article, though, said the county teachers' salaries ranked "13th amongst all school systems," but "No. 3 amongst county systems." All told, the article used "amongst" five times.

A college newspaper's review of the play Rent discussed the endurance of "the themes of community and friendship amidst hardship."

Whilst we often lament that language has become too informal, there are times when we try to make it too formal, and thusly too stiff-upper-lipist.

"Amongst" and "amidst" are perfectly fine words, listed in dictionaries and everything, but they fall a bit on the "I know big words" scale of writing.

Outside of British-influenced speakers, people rarely use them out loud. Garner's Modern American Usage calls "amongst" "pretentious at best" and also says that "amidst" and even "amid" are "slightly quaint terms."

Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage notes that "amongst" is "a bit more common in British use than American," but that "the few commentators who call amongst quaint or overrefined are off target." (Ahem, Garner's.) It harbors similar feelings about "amidst," and even "amid," saying that their use "is not restricted to ‘literary' or ‘quaint' publications." In M-W's world, one couldst include "amidst" and "amongst" as tools in one's literary toolbox. For those who say that "among" could easily replace "amid/amidst," M-W says, just try it. It will falleth short more than it will succeedeth.

Amongst all those British-influenced "st" words, by far the most common used in American English seems to be "unbeknownst." It's also the one with the thinnest raison d'être.

Whilst "amongst" and "amidst" easily trace their origins to before Columbus sailed the ocean blue, the origin of "unbeknownst" is "not clear," as the venerable Oxford English Dictionary puts it, tracing its first use to an 1848 British novel. In 1869, "unbeknownst" was already declared "obsolete in good usage," M-W says. Others have called "unbeknownst" improper, vulgar (in a language sense), colloquial, dialect, used only by the uneducated, etc. Many say the "proper" term is "unbeknown," which the OED traces only to 1824. Garner's, however, says that "unbeknownst far outranges unbeknown in frequency" in American usage and, thus must "be considered at least acceptable." M-W says that both are "standard."

Remember, though, that "standard" and "acceptable" are not licenses to overkill. In matching words to tone, try "amid," "among," or "unknown" first. They're shorter, and might make a better fit for your article, and your audience. Informing people dost not always mean trying to prove you're smarter than they are.

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Merrill Perlman is adjunct assistant professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and president of Merrill Perlman Consulting, offering consulting and freelance editing services and training in journalism, grammar and usage. Among her clients are The New York Times, ProPublica and the Poynter Institute. She writes the "Language Corner" column and blog for Columbia Journalism Review. Merrill retired in June 2008 after 25 years at The New York Times, most recently as director of copy desks with responsibility for managing 150 copy editors. Click here to read more articles by Merrill Perlman.