While vs. Whilst

background image 105

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.

Here are some quotations from newspapers:

… Why do flies gather inside a room, whilst bees and butterflies somehow avoid the open door or window?
Jill Shimwell, Bebington(www.theguardian.com)

… has become the first major casualty of England’s World Cup campaign after dislocating his right shoulder while running near the team’s base on the Gulf of Finland. The England manager suffered the injury while jogging … (www.theguardian.com)

… sheriff’s deputies in Kansas who were shot while transporting inmates from a jail to a court hearing on Friday died of their injuries, the police in Kansas City, (www.nytimes.com)

… agency that takes custody of children separated from their parents, have said that the children will not be reunited while their parents remain in custody. But reunification demands will increase as more parents are released from … (www.latimes.com)

Occasions When Only “While” Will Do

As the Oxford Dictionaries site points out, the world “while” can be used as a noun, verb, or preposition – “whilst” cannot.

Here are some sentences where only “while” will do, whichever side of the Atlantic you’re on.

It took me a while to find the report you wanted. (Use of “while” as a noun.)

He kept me waiting all the while. (Use of “while” as a noun.)

I’ll while away the hours with some knitting. (Use of “while” as a verb.)

She’ll be there four while six. (Use of “while” as a preposition, meaning “until”. Now archaic or regional – e.g. you’ll often hear this in the Yorkshire area of England.)

The word “whilst” wouldn’t work as an alternative in any of these sentences.

Note that while the use of “a while” as a noun is very normal, the use of “the while” and “while” as a verb are fairly unusual and might sound a little archaic or odd.

Here are some versions of the above sentences that would sound more contemporary:

He kept me waiting all the while

= He kept me waiting the whole time.

I’ll while away the hours with some knitting.

= I’ll pass the time with some knitting.

She’ll be there four while six.

= She’ll be there from four until six.

Is it a “A While” or “Awhile”?

You might be wondering whether “a while” or “awhile” is the correct word for a particular sentence.

There are a couple of things to note here:

  • You can’t write “a whilst” – because “while” is being used as a noun.
  • You can’t use “a while” and “awhile” interchangeably – they mean different things.

A while is a noun that means “a period of time”, and is often (though by no means always) preceded by the word “for” – e.g. “Please wait for a while”.

Awhile is an adverb, which means “for a period of time”. It isn’t ever preceded by the word “for”.

Here are some sentences illustrating the difference:

Please read your book quietly for a while.

This meeting took a while.

I’ll be able to help you in a while.

Please wait awhile.

If you’re not ready yet, don’t worry: I’ll sit awhile.

He dawdled awhile at the entrance.

If you’re not sure which one you want, try replacing “a while” with another noun, such as “a minute” or “an hour”,  and “awhile” with another adverb, such as “patiently”:

Please read your book quietly for a minute.

This meeting took an hour.

I’ll be able to help you in a minute.

Please wait patiently.

If you’re not ready yet, don’t worry: I’ll sit patiently.

He dawdled patiently at the entrance.

Ultimately, it’s worth remembering that most uses of the word “awhile” will sound a little archaic. Generally, the use you want is “a while” – just check whether you can replace it with “a minute” (or “an hour”, “a day”, “a week”) and if so, then you’re using it correctly.

See also Among vs Amongst

Stop making those embarrassing mistakes! Subscribe to Daily Writing Tips today!

You will improve your English in only 5 minutes per day, guaranteed!

Each newsletter contains a writing tip, word of the day, and exercise!

You'll also get three bonus ebooks completely free!

65 thoughts on “While vs. Whilst”

  1. As a Brit, whilst sounds quaint to me too. Some do prefer to use it, but you’ll notice that they use it when speaking to their child’s headteacher or in job interviews. In other words, in order to sound posh / clever / better bred than they are.

    Maybe some do use it instinctively even when talking to themselves, but i have trouble imagining so.

    I didn’t know whilst came in later than while, even though the former sounds earlier (the earlier sounds former?(!)); that’s a relief! I can speak the simpler way and be true to the more ‘original’ form. ;0)

  2. Oh, btw, they are interchangeable only if used in the sense of during – ‘She sang while bathing’ / ‘She sang whilst bathing’. But if meaning even though, you have to use while – ‘While Jack likes lean meat, his wife likes it all greasy.’ In that sense you can’t say ‘whilst’.

    Your second example, ‘I waited while breakfast was finished,’ is interesting as it would sound more natural to me to say ‘until’ instead of ‘while’. Or rather, some people – commonly in Ireland, i think, though someone will have to confirm that – use while to mean the same as until in this kind of sentence, while (whereas!) to me that gives two sentences with different meanings.

  3. Whilst refers to a lesser time span, bringing poignancy to the topical area instilling emotion into the story about the first subject. (I am going to continue to tell what else was happening but please keep your focus remaining on the first subject at the beginning of the sentence.) While refers to a longer time span with less emphasis on the first subject giving equal importance if not more importance to the second subject in the sentence.

    Whilst …I… agree that there is some confusion about the word, we all continue to use it regardless.

    While I agree there is confusion, ..we.. all continue to use it regardless.

  4. I remember asking one of my English teachers this exact same question. His answer was something along the lines of:

    “While” is normally used when simultaneity is emphasised i.e. in the sense of at the same time.

    “Whilst” can be used in the same way as while but can also be used when the writer is trying to emphasise a difference between the two ideas they are linking together e.g. I took the bus whilst Mark took the train.

  5. People who are insecure about their English use “whilst” when they want to sound educated. You will hear this ridiculous word on, e.g. BBC forum threads (usually along with spelling mistakes and other errors). You will never hear an educated native speaker use “whilst”. I’m not a snob; just tired of seeing my wonderful language kicked around without respect. People who use “whilst” are the real snobs.

  6. I use both ‘while’ and ‘whilst’. It all depends on the context in which it’s used. I’m from a working-class background, and live on a council estate in South Wales. I’m anything but posh!
    Judging people on the subtleties of their diction is no different to judging others on their regional accent. Get over yourselves.

  7. ‘While’ and ‘whilst’ are different as they relate to time in different ways. It’s similar to the way we have different tenses depending on whether an action is completed or not.

    The perfect tense (I have done something) is a completed action in the past whereas the imperfect tense (I was doing something) is a continuing action in the past. My french teacher taught me that ‘the imperfect tense was happening when the perfect tense happened.’

    ‘Whilst’ refers to something that happened at a specific time as something else whereas ‘while’ is a more general statement.

    He was tied to a lampost whilst his owner finished the shopping.

    I tend to tie hime to a lampost while I do the shopping.

    The former is a defined period of time (it ends once the shopping was finished) whereas the latter is a general continuing statement (I could still be doing the shopping or I could be doing it at any time – you can’t tell from the sentence).

  8. “He was tied to a lampost whilst his owner finished the shopping.”

    This is a great example. Using “while” in this case would not sound correct to a native speaker.

  9. Hi everyone. Just like Paul said, then “whilst is more like “when”? (due to the time of the action?), ex:

    I was chatting with David whilst the accident happened!

    I was chatting with David when the accident happened!

    But in the case of using “while”, the example would be:

    I was chatting with David while the accident happened in the office? store? street?

    Therefore, “while” can be used to refer to a place where the action takes or took place.

    You can say, ex:

    I am going to have dinner while you watch the movie.

    But, you can’t say:

    I am going to have dinner “when” or “whilst” you watch the movie. (it sounds very imperfect).

    Cheers everyone!

  10. Dear Peter Foulds, it seems you want to put yourself in a superior position whilst in fact not grasping the subtle difference. I use both while and whilst depending on the meaning I want to communicate, but imagine you prefer the simplified version of the language pushed on us through American/Microsoft ‘English’?

  11. I’m British and I have to say that I hate ‘Whilst’. I don’t know why, but it sounds and looks totally wrong to me, so I never use it. ‘While’ is the way forward!

  12. Whereas I use both, sometimes whilst sounds better when the next word begins with a vowel, I suspect it’s easier to say which is how most of these things start.

    I did x whilst Andrew did y,

    is, to me, easier to say\read than

    I did x while Andrew did y.

    I did x while Peter did y

    sounds nicer than

    I did x whilst Peter did y.

    Not sure that’s a rule, but it works for me

  13. I grew up in South Africa, and I and tend to use ‘whilst’ in the same manner as Paul above. Eg: “The power tripped whilst I was mowing the lawn on Friday,” in a direct reference to an event. I will also then use ‘while’ in other sentences – as Paul said, usually when the sentence is a more general statement. “The power often trips while I’m mowing the lawn”

    With regards to Peter Foulds, I think judging people by their use of an acceptably interchangeable word is small-minded, personally. It is an extremely big leap to assume that they have done it on purpose to ‘sound posh’. One of the joys of the English language is it’s many variations.

  14. Doesn’t it just depend on what you read (or (past tense) read) during your formative years? If it consisted of nother more than a McDonalds menu or Viz etc then either ‘whilst’ or ‘while’ won’t work because both contain too many letters.

    Alternatively, if you enjoyed older, better written and more imaginative stuff, like Orwell, Francis, Wyndham, Crichton etc, then you will probably end up with a more interesting and broader vocab.

    That some people assume you are in some way inferior (or superior) because you choose to end a particular word in ‘st’ instead of ‘e’ is, to me, simply slightly depressing, though not surprising, having gotten to know human nature as I have over the last 50-odd years.

  15. I’m Australian and sometimes I use whilst, especially before ‘I’

    “Whilst I thought that….now I think that…

    Here’s an example from a PDF on taking dogs to Epping Forest in London, England:

    “Whilst you are welcome to enjoy these areas we do ask you to clear up after your dog.”

    I’ve never thought of ‘whilst’ as posh or trying to put on airs. It’s just a natural quirk of the language. It’s not like “whom” which might be correct, but always sounds stilted to me unless it’s in a stock phrase like “To whom it may concern”

  16. This is an extremely interesting conversation. I’m an amateur linguist, if I may call myself that, from the United States. I don’t intend to enter into this conversation to be judged or to judge, but merely to share an American perspective in what appears to be a predominantly British discussion.

    “Whilst” seems to me, as the author suggested, quaint or old-fashioned. Nobody I know uses it, and I don’t use it in practice. If I found it used in anything other than a poem I would assume that the writing was of old (100+ years), the likes of such as Jane Austen or even Bram Stoker. Given that these are both authors of the UK and I haven’t read many contemporary British works, I might assume upon finding the written word “whilst” that it was written by a British pen.

    The cause for my finding this article was that I found the word “whilst” in a technical document and it seemed very out-of-place. The portion of the document containing the word was very likely written by someone from Edinburgh.

    Thanks for reading!

  17. As an American English speaker, I actually find myself using both, randomly in conversation, or thought. I’ve always tried to maintain decent grammar and spelling, but I do not know why ‘whilst’ is even in my vocabulary. That’s a random thought of mine.

  18. Speaking only of the UK, I’m wondering if there are regional differences. I spent four years in York as a teenager and seem to use ‘whilst’ more than other people. ‘While’ seems also to have the alternate meaning in Yorkshire of ‘until’. So people say; I waited while’t bus came before I got my wallet out.. Anyone else found this?

  19. Peter Foulds and Mand are both mistaken. I am a well-educated native speaker and am entirely secure in my grasp of English. I have neither need nor desire to “sound educated”, nor do I wish “to sound posh / clever / better bred” than I am (I’m quite posh, clever and well-bred as it is, thank you!) I love and respect my language, and am far from being a snob. I use “whilst” because (a) it is as correct as using “while” and (b) I’ve always used “whilst”. To be judged a snob because of that habit is faintly ridiculous.

  20. Haha, Mike! I also agree that they are both mistaken. In my experience, the type of person that tries to sound educated use words like whom and whilst, but INCORRECTLY!

  21. I have to say that I visited this web site after reading the usage of the word in an email declaring a postscript with the introduction “Whilst I have your attention” and considering it to sound pompous/inappropriate.

    I am well educated and am the son of an English teacher who has corrected my grammar all my life, but I am from a working class background/area. Maybe I have a chip on my shoulder but I do most definitely consider this usage pretentious.

    To me the word is completely archaic even in England and therefore any appropriate usage would be ironic/sarcastic.

  22. Both words have a place and I don’t believe they ARE entirely interchangeable – I think Cat and Miguele define it pretty well and that Mand is wrong (sorry!). I also think it strange that anyone could consider the use of the word ‘whilst’ as being posh or pompous – it’s simply a word in the English language which has its place. The use of it as a means of alliteration, where it helps the flow and rhythm of the sentence hasn’t exactly been mentioned, I don’t think, and – as well as the (sort of) rule which governs when to use ‘while’ or ‘whilst’, as Cat and Miguele explain it – the use of ‘whilst’ because the following words sit better with it could, in my opinion, be a legitimate reason for using it, as Wesley points out. ie to my ear ‘whilst it is….’ sounds better than ‘while it is…’, but, as someone else mentions, that could be regional; and doesn’t alter the facts of when it should really be used.

    Hate to say it, but the example in the article: ‘I waited while breakfast was finished’ isn’t, strictly, legitimate English! Someone can wait while breakfast is being finished (by the other participants), but the example sentence leaves the reader asking ‘finished with what – what was breakfast doing?’! You can wait until breakfast is over, ie it is an event that comes to an end.

  23. “Whilst it’s true that people get confused about when to use Whilst or While, simply think of While as a period of time”

    Lets wait a while.

    It’ll be here in a short while.

    Use ‘Whilst’ otherwise.

  24. “I had to wait while breakfast was finished” does not imply until breakfast was finished – someone waited whilst breakfast was being eaten and may have left before it was finished. Whilst some prefer to speak American, I prefer to speak English. Whilst comes into its own as a conjunction expressing the imperfect tense it cannot be used as a noun or verb: “Wait a while (noun) whilst (conjunction) I while (verb) away time”. Of course there is the form awhile, but that discussion can be left for another occasion.

  25. NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell just said on ABC tv:

    “Whilst it’s true that the weather on any day …”

    regarding the bushfires in the Blue Mountains lately. Some sort of alarm bell rang in my temporal lobe. “Although” may’ve fit as well. I didn’t think ‘whilst’ was the right word to use in that context, but couldn’t think of a reason why, which is why I found this website – after looking at half a dozen other ones all with erroneous reasons for and/or against ‘whilst’.

    Given that the word ‘whilst’ is a perfectly valid part of proper contemporary English English, can anyone agree or disagree that ‘whilst’ was not used correctly by Mr O’Farrell in that statement, and explain a reason why?

    My native understanding is that ‘whilst’ refers to chronological relationships whereas the word ‘while’ is a more colloquial synonym to ‘whereas’ or ‘although’ used to illustrate a logical relationship.

  26. “He was tied to a lampost whilst his owner finished the shopping.” sounds completely unnatural to me. (Also, it should probably be “remained” not “was”. “Was” makes it sounds as though the tying occurred during the time that the shopping was being finished, and not that the state of being tied ended when the shopping finished.)

    In every source I’ve found they all say that “while” and “whilst” are just different versions of the exact same word. Argue all you want but it all comes down to regional dialects and, in some cases, even family tradition.

  27. It was expalined to me that “while” is related to time and whilst is more for comparison:

    I was eating a cake while riding my bike.

    My bike is blue whilst my brother’s is red

  28. Many “rules” are expressed to explain the difference between while and whilst.

    According to the Oxford Dictionaries blog, however, whilst is just another word for while.

  29. As a “Yank,” I don’t often hear whilst used other than by pretentious Americans. It’s not that it shouldn’t be used, but it is more of an affectation for an American to use it.

  30. I use whilst sometimes. I’m Australian who grew up with BBC tv programming. I use it some others have suggested – it brings a sense of poignancy, approaching quaintness. Sometimes I go to use while and whilst just sounds more appropriate to me. I never think I’m consciously impressing anyone, it’s just another word to me. Never knew there was so much reverse-snobbery about it!

  31. I am a middle aged person who has lived all over the US. I have never heard a person use the word “whilst” in speaking.

  32. As a Brit relocated to America, I can’t stand seeing in The Telegraph reportage the uninhibited use of the word “Whilst” and almost never “While”. That is snobbery. The above explanations do very well to explain that there is a difference. Finally, it’s about the flow of our language towards decent writing. Blame Noah Webster for blanding the language.

  33. I, too, came here from a web search and have enjoyed reading the responses. I have seen the word “whilst” used quite a bit on a MMO site.

    I felt compelled to respond due to the broadcasting reference. Much to my dismay, US news and/or programming is, unfortunately, not a good place to find proper English. It may be different in the UK.

    I like the word. It does seem to be British English from a non UK point of view.

    (I grew up with my Mother’s (British) English dictionary. She wasn’t British.) I had a friend, whose children attended the same private school, and she made a remark about returning to England after living here for a while. She said that now (finally), her children will learn proper spelling.

    I guess when we dumped the tea for coffee…

    (I prefer Earl Grey)

  34. I’m from New Zealand, of Maori descent, however English is my first language. I do, and have always used both while and whilst in written form, and in conversation. There is certainly a stigma attached to ‘whilst’ here in NZ, much the same as mentioned previously… i.e. trying to sound ‘above ones station’, or quaint and old fashioned. My wife still gives me grief if I use it when speaking to her.
    It’s a great example of how ridiculous and petty we can be. Whether you’re looking down your nose, or suffering from Tall Poppy Syndrome, to consider the use of whilst as anything other than proper English is wrong. One expects that the same people would have a problem with ones’ use of one instead of I, me or my.

  35. I’ve always lived in England and I have to say that although I would find it difficult to put my finger on it, there are sentences in which ‘while’ does not sound right and ‘whilst’ must be used. I find myself using it on a daily basis and I hardly think it sounds pretentious but rather a use of ‘proper’ English. However, I would say that it is more common in written English (although that may be due to the fact that the usage of ‘whilst’ in spoken English can often go unnoticed).

  36. A bunch of people in my office believe that “whilst” should be pronounced very differently than “while”. They believe it should be said “will-st”. Has anyone ever heard of this? I can’t tell if I’m being pranked or if everyone around me is really this dumb.

  37. I’m not a native English speaker, just want to contribute my point of view…

    In my field of work (tech engineering) I’ve noticed the use of ‘whilst’ as being a result, an action that happens simultaneously along another action which causes the first… I don’t know if that made any sense, here is my example:

    “RPMs of X are limited to Y to achieve maximal performance whilst reducing wear and tear of Z”

    While ‘while’ is used as a ‘but’, so the first action doesn’t affect the second action…

    “Thus high vectoring trust can be maintained for more than X seconds while bearing temperatures will not rise higher than Y C°”

    I just realized that I use both regularly when writing tech specs in the same manner and I don’t have any idea where I got “whilst” from…

  38. “Whilst” sounds pretentious in any context. Every time I read that word I picture a snob in a powdered wig sipping tea with a raised pinky.

    Just use “while” please. Not only will you avoid sounding like a pompous 18th century aristocrat, but it has fewer letters so you can type it faster. It’s win/win.

  39. I’ve been using “Whilst” in my formal scientific report riting to imply that there is a caveat to the point I am making, or a caveat to the comparison or summary i am presenting.
    For example, Whilst Rogers and Hammerstein both create beautiful compositions, Smith’s stuff is awful. or,
    Whilst there is consistency in the literature regarding a specific practice in psychology, there is no evidence to support the continued reliance on this practice.
    Whilst I have been enjoying the use of this aspect of language to allow much more concise and succinct summaries in my sentences, it appears that this word is no longer fashionable and should not be used, therefore I must revert to using “while” which has pretty much the same meaning.

  40. I bumped into this conversation as I found myself searching if whilst is even a word.
    My subconscious had made me type it in a sentence and I found myself wondering- Where did I even learn this word, I don’t remember it being taught in the school(we were taught British English there)- it probably was the novels maybe.

    Brain is an amazing organ, it makes me come up with words which I thought I never even knew before.

  41. Interesting. I am a native, educated English speaker born and bred in the UK and I use “whilst” fairly regularly in written and spoken conversation/communication. It was not uncommon to hear “whilst” used at the expense of “while” by both my parents and my educators. To the fool (I won’t mention him by name) here who makes the sweeping generalisation that “whilst” is only used by those who are trying to act snobbish, and who implies that educated native English speakers would never use ‘whilst’ in place of ‘while’ is completely wrong. 🙂

  42. I am English and have lived in England all my life. I use while and whilst in both speaking and writing. I agree with Iz in that I couldn’t say exactly where and when I use either. I have never studied English Language to a higher level than O level so I think it simply comes from those around me and reading. I do not feel it is in anyway archaic, snobbish or even pretentious. I suspect that those who feel it is need to brush that chip off their shoulders!
    In general I think I use “whilst” at the start of a sentence to create some sort of emphasis (implying a “but” without saying it). Along the lines of “Whilst I agree the two words are essentially the same, there are subtle differences in their usage”.

  43. I used “whilst” (accidentally) and then wondered why. It’s an English word alright. I must have come across it somewhere in a novel.

  44. I have never heard a speaker of American English use whilst in any context. To Americans, whilst is a Britishism only.

  45. I use whilst and whilst. Both are correct in that one refers to an i,,ediate and the other to an ongoing event. Those fools that mock those using whilst are precisely tham

  46. Very interesting conversation! And this comment from Steve made me laugh:

    “Whilst” sounds pretentious in any context. Every time I read that word I picture a snob in a powdered wig sipping tea with a raised pinky.

    I’m an American who has lived in England and is currently editing an employee handbook for my company’s UK office, which is how I came across this page. “Whilst” sounds very British to me; I can’t imagine Americans using it without getting a ribbing from friends or colleagues.

Leave a Comment