It’s time once again to play Is This English? I’ve learned over the years that a usage that seems completely wrong to me may be perfectly OK, or at least marginally acceptable, to other native speakers, and I’ve got one from today’s NY Times I want to get opinions on. The story, by Randal C. Archibold, is about a group of James Dean fans, one of them named Rick Young, who met at the California intersection where Dean was killed in a car crash fifty years ago (the story is datelined Cholame, which is pronounced sho-LAM, like “show Lamb”); the sentence I want to bring to your attention reads as follows: “In Mr. Young’s midst on this parched plain between Los Angeles and San Francisco was Scott Brimigion, a salesman from Valencia, Calif., and a dead ringer for Dean, with his red jacket, white T-shirt, blue jeans, pompadour and pouty look.” I was, shall we say, taken aback by this use of “midst”; to me, the only thing it can mean is that Mr. Brimigion was inside Mr. Young, or at the very least underneath his clothing. I would have written “in Mr. Young’s vicinity.” But the language has been changing faster than I can keep up with it for some time now; is there anyone out there for whom this is a normal, or at least acceptable, phrase?


  1. aldiboronti says

    Yes, the usage would have set me back on my heels too. I’ve never come across it before. I tried googling the phrase “in his midst” and came up with 23,200 hits, most of which seem to be used in the same sense as the passage you quote.
    A few examples from the first page of results:
    “Congress was becoming impatient, and Washington had a disgruntled general in his midst, Charles Lee, who believed he should be the Commander in Chief.”
    “Dozens upon dozens of people were suddenly in his midst, climbing tall ladders and lashing wooden platforms high up in the trees so that they could see.”
    “Were you surprised by the corruption and depravity that he uncovers in his midst? How would you characterize Timothy’s feelings for his father?”
    Very odd!

  2. Ouch! Ouch! But change is inevitable. I can see it becoming normal.

  3. I think P.G. Wodehouse put the phrase in Bertie Wooster’s mouth, but probably intended it (given the speaker) as a malapropism.
    Does give one to wonder where Wodehouse heard it, however.

  4. That don’t make it right. Interchangeably using “Your” with “You’re” is also common, but nevertheless wrong. Messy thinking, messy writing.

  5. It’s odd to me, though not completely startling. AH does give this definition:

    A position of proximity to others: a stranger in our midst.

  6. “In our midst”, fine; “in my midst”, bizarre.

  7. Heh, I think I’m the only one who finds this usage perfectly normal. 🙂 I purposely kept myself from reading the end of the post to see if I could locate the problem, and I couldn’t.

  8. >”In our midst”, fine; “in my midst”, bizarre.

  9. Seems absolutely wrong to me, as well, but I noticed that one of the Google results had “in his midst” in Isaiah 29:23 (not sure what translation) and I see that the King James Version of the verse is “But when he seeth his children, the work of mine hands, in the midst of him, they shall sanctify my name, and sanctify the Holy One of Jacob, and shall fear the God of Israel.”
    So it’s not exactly a new thing.

  10. I generally take “in x’s midst” to mean “in the middle of x”, so this usage gives me some very odd mental images.
    We must all be in the midst of an omnipresent God, of course. And isn’t God sometimes referred to with a plural pronoun in the Hebrew bible?

  11. On further thinking, would anyone who uses “midst” like this use “amidst” similarly?
    “Amidst him” sounds even worse… and yet Google shows it to be quite common.

  12. What a strange generalization, from the plural (“in our/your/their midst”) to the singular.
    Or is it? I found several bible quotes that have “in my midst” in the relevant sense (I think):
    For Lamentations 1:15, three different translations:

    • “The Lord has rejected all the warriors in my midst; he has summoned an army against me to crush my young men.”
    • “Trodden down all my mighty ones hath the Lord in my midst, He proclaimed against me an appointed time, To destroy my young men,”
    • “All the mighty ones in my midst the Lord has cast away; He summoned an army against me to crush my young men;”

    For Luke 14:12-14: “Who are the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind in my midst? How do I reach out to them?”

  13. My intuitions are much the same as Hat’s. I think the word “midst” is sort of like the word “between” in that it only goes with certain nouns. “Midst” seems to go with plural, collective, or mass nouns. What’s more, if the noun is a count noun or a collective, I think it has to refer to a number greater than two (or be ambiguous). So:

    * in the midst of the tree
    * in the midst of the two trees
    in the midst of the three trees
    in the midst of the trees
    * in the midst of the pair
    in the midst of the trio
    in the midst of the fog

    “Between” on the other hand seems to want an object whose number is exactly two (or ambiguous), and it doesn’t like mass nouns:

    * between the tree
    between the two trees
    * between the three trees
    between the trees
    * between the fog
    * between the water

  14. >> (the story is datelined Cholame, which is pronounced sho-LAM, like “show Lamb”)
    I’m from the Central Valley and have driven through Cholame many times on the way to San Luis Obispo and Pismo. I’ve always heard it pronounced CHO-la-mi.

  15. Michael Farris says

    To me “in his midst” sounds wrong since midst in this context to me means more or less the same as ‘among’ and requires something like a plural (fuzzy phrasing on purpose).
    On the other hand, I googled things like “among me” “among him” etc and there are some examples of this as well. “I call it a gift, knowing that God is among me.” seems to be a typical example, at:
    What the @!#$%! is going on?

  16. To clarify, it definitely seems wrong to me, but I have a feeling of doom, and I’m not going to fight the last-ditch fight.

  17. carolyn: I’m not familiar with the town myself; I got my information from Gudde’s California Place Names, a very reliable book. Since the name was originally written Cholam (it’s from Miguileño č’olám), it can’t originally have been pronounced the way you describe, but I thought perhaps his version was out of date. However, a quick googling produced several results confirming his pronunciation (“pronounced as if to rhyme with ‘bam’“; “Cholame (pronounced ‘Shoal-lamb’)“; “Cholame (pronounced Sholam)“; etc.), so I think you’ve simply been unaware of the local pronunciation. Next time you drive through, you might stop and check it out (and report your findings here, of course!).
    Somehow I’m not surprised that at least one commentator sees nothing wrong with the use of “midst”; I am, however, surprised at the Biblical pedigree. The OED gives no hint of such a use.

  18. i believe the tensor hit the nail on the head. “midst” doesn’t work as well with singular entities.

  19. I was nodding in agreement with the plural-midst advocates in this thread until I got to Chris Waigl’s Bible quotes, presumably King James Version, which clearly use a singular midst when speaking of physical and not spiritual entities — warriors in my midst, for example. The word is used there to indicate proximity to a point (myself) rather than “located within our group.” Anything in the King James sounds fine to me, even though I agree the initial example is jarring. I’m in favor of accepting “in [singular pronoun] midst” if for no other reason that there’s not a better word without resorting to something like “vicinity” or “proximity”.

  20. In the example from Lamentations, isn’t the speaker Israel, a plural entity?

  21. Just to clarify, the speaker in the passage from Lamentations is the city of Jerusalem, so “in my midst” makes some sort of sense. “Who are the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind in my midst? How do I reach out to them?” is not actually biblical. It’s from the website of the Benedictine Sisters of Mount Saint Scholastica, telling us what lesson we should learn from Luke 14

  22. “Washington had a disgruntled general in his midst” makes sense as short for “Washington had an army, which had a disgruntled general in its midst”.

  23. I hear what you’re all saying and logically yes, it is wrong, but … I think we may be seeing another usage of “midst” unfolding before our very eyes. (I also have to admit that on a first reading, it didn’t strike me as odd, which is what makes me think this). Anyway, who said language is logical?

  24. Not me, that’s for sure!

  25. unclewilly says

    The usage is not standard American English. Almost as bad is the indiscriminate use of “amidst” when “amid” is the way to go. “Amidst” and “midst” are almost always epideictic: they may be intended to impress but they are, instead, pretentious.

  26. “Seems absolutely wrong to me, as well, but I noticed that one of the Google results had “in and I see that the King James Version of the verse is “But when he seeth his children, the work of mine hands, in the midst of him, they shall sanctify my name, and sanctify the Holy One of Jacob, and shall fear the God of Israel.”
    “Him” is a reference to Jacob/Israel, so midst works.
    In actuality the King james Version is a poor standard for what is and isn’t real English, as much as it is held up as a treasure of the language. It is really in translationese rather than English. The vernacular didn’t have enough prestige at the time to stand up the the temptation to verbatim renderings. In lots of places the wording is just exotic. Later translations make many verse a lot less weird when they are translated into more normal [Indo-European] sounding English.

  27. Excellent point.

  28. Sorry of the sloppy bible and non-bible quotes.
    Nonetheless, even though the King James version is “translationese”, I imagine it must have influenced (and still influence) what bible-reading English speakers consider as prestige versions of English.

  29. Say could a pregnant woman be described as having a foetus “in her midst”?

  30. (or “amongst her”?)

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