The Difference Between “While” and “Whilst”

By Maeve Maddox

A reader asks:

what is the difference between while and whilst?

Both while and whilst have been in the language for a very long time. While was in use in Old English; whilst is a Middle English development of while. As conjunctions they are interchangeable in meaning, but whilst has not survived in standard American English.

I waited whilst Mugabe delivered what he thought were his pearls of wisdom…

I waited while breakfast was finished.

To the American ear whilst sounds quaint. Some British and Canadian speakers think it sounds literary or old-fashioned, but many British speakers prefer it to while.

See Among vs Amongst

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64 Responses to “The Difference Between “While” and “Whilst””

  • Joanna

    I’ve read all the comments here and must say that I feel both confused and frustrated by them. I am from the middle of the United States, where I lived until my late 40s. I have degrees from a large US university and came to live in the South of England at age 50. I hear and see the word whilst used in the context of referring to something happening at the same time as another thing. I don’t recall hearing anyone in the UK using the word ‘while’ in that context. As I hear and read things from all kinds of sources both formal and informal, I had assumed that this is considered normal and correct BE usage of the word whilst.

    The word sounds archaic and cringeworthy to my ear, and I don’t recall ever encountering it before coming to England. However, I have done my best to assimilate and that means taking the whole package. Now that I have read BE users, both highly educated and more average, give opposite opinions about this word, I am completely puzzled and rather annoyed. I will just consult Oxford dictionaries, I suppose.

    I came to this site to get clarification. I leave with none, except for the new sense that there is a wide range of opinion on this word, and that in my some 14 years absence from the US, Americans have begun using a word that would have sounded ludicrous to any American I ever met in my life until now. How things change as we get older! No wonder the elderly shake their heads in disbelief.

  • Paul

    Just came across this thread when seeking an answer to the question myself.
    I see it’s brought the class warriors out. The sloppy way many people speak today, (many, especially the young, don’t seem to recognise the existence of the letter “t” in the middle of words), anything that even approaches proper English speech is liable to be derided as “posh”.

    To the poster who’s concerned about her grammar, “might of” is in the same league as “could of, should of”, etc – in other words, to be used only by American rednecks or Radio 1 disc jockeys. It is not proper English.

    As for the poster talking about archaic expressions, “gotten” has been archaic in BE for at least 200 years, but seems to be gaining ground again.

  • Graham

    I use both while and whilst, and always have done. For me “while” shows two actions that are occurring simultaneously but whilst draws a contrast either in content or time. Or as Geoffrey put it “whilst” introduces a caveat to the summary or comparison being presented. The points about euphony do not seem out of place to me, so why not “whilst” before a vowel to make it easier to pronounce. Sometimes one or the other does not seem right but I cannot say why.

    Given that English is spoken as a first language in many countries all over the world, I find it strange that some people seem so dogmatic in the use of a word. Whilst the use they assert as the truth can well be true, I would only go as far as to say it is true of where they live or work etc and allow use to vary in other areas or settings.

    The English language does not have a governing body. There is no equivalent of the Académie française for the English language.

  • Maeve Maddox

    Leila,
    It is a regional thing. I have heard it in the speech of American speakers from rural Oklahoma.

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