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.

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Comments from our users:

Monday May 26th 2014, 8:32 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
"Amid," oddly, sounds stiff in ordinary conversation but is perfectly at home in headlinese because it packs a lot into four letters!
Monday May 26th 2014, 9:32 AM
Comment by: Robert E M. (Telford Pa, PA)
I'm an old guy who grew up with the King James version of the Bible firmly established as the language of worship and prayer. Having four preacher uncles added this form of English to our family conversations. The words for today do not sound at all formal to me. WOW! There is something snooty about me. SURPRIZE!!!
Monday May 26th 2014, 11:51 AM
Comment by: Graeme Roberts (Pittsford, NY)
I spent the first half of my life in Australia and the next thirty years in the United States. Having necessarily taken on the conventions of American English, I was surprised, when consulting in Australia in 2004, that the Aussies with whom I worked insisted on writing and even saying "whilst" most of the time. I found it gratingly pretentious, and unfamiliar from my youth. It felt like a recent affectation, and I couldn't find an explanation.
Monday May 26th 2014, 1:26 PM
Comment by: Craig J.
I've been told that the height of bad manners is pointing out someone else's bad manners; I think that looking down on someone else for using perfectly good words, correctly pronounced, is somewhat the same mistake. If we all trim our verbal sails to the current whim of the majority, we'll turn English into a sort of "Family Feud" event, and dumb it down into Nu-Speak. If you like it, use it, and to hell with both the mob and the snob...unless you're trying to be commercial, in which case I suppose you have to agonize over words like "unbeknownst" when they pop into your head. Generally, however, in the words of motorist Rodney King: "Can't we all just get along?"
Monday May 26th 2014, 10:47 PM
Comment by: Freda W. (Darlington Australia)
Well, an interesting article for the amount of feeling it engendered! I was immediately in a huff because I use those words and think they say something that the simpler ones don't ... "I know big words" indeed! Huh.
Thursday May 29th 2014, 5:28 AM
Comment by: Thorunn S. (Reykjavik Iceland)
Strongly agree with both Craig and Freda. "I know big words", indeed! Just because YOU don't see the point of using a word doesn't mean it's affected. There definitely is a shade of difference.
Saturday May 31st 2014, 4:40 AM
Comment by: Paul D.
There must be something in the water downunder because I too agree with Freda. I definitely, (or is it defiantly?), commonly use the words whilst and amongst, and have done so for at least 55 years. I am not sure whether Graeme has endured American enculturation to the extent his comment suggests and thereby failed to appreciate the diversity in which Australians express themselves.

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