While vs. Whilst

By Maeve Maddox

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

Want to improve your English in five minutes a day? Get a subscription and start receiving our writing tips and exercises daily!

Keep learning! Browse the Vocabulary category, check our popular posts, or choose a related post below:


65 Responses to “While vs. Whilst”

  • Creed

    Hello,

    I’m a born & bred Australian and I’ve always used both whilst & while in speech and writing.

    That being said, I’ve (apparently incorrectly) been under the impression that ‘whilst’ is the possessive version of while, in the same fashion as ‘your’ and ‘their’, whilst ‘while’ would’ve been in the same vein as ‘you’re’ and ‘there’.

    E.g: “I drank a can of coke, whilst I waited for the bus.”

    As opposed to: “He usually has a drink while waiting at the bus stop”.

  • Akumac4

    I am a Brit living in the United States and I have never heard am American use whilst, when I use the term it is normally pointed out how British of me in the way Americans make fun of the way I pronounce some words compared to them.

    I’m far from upper class, I grew up in Battersea in the SW of London, no snobs there but I do use both whilst & while in daily conversation, but I do not use them interchangeably.

    I use them as my English teachers both in London & later in Exeter taught me.

    Whilst would be used to describe two events concurring at the same time
    “I drank my tea whilst reading the paper”

    I only use while to convey time as in “this is going to take a while”

  • Alice

    I came to look while and whilst up because I had sent someone a text message and realized my grammar might of been wrong. I had typed something like this: “you can do this, do that and do that all the ‘while’ you can have this.” I thought to myself, ‘I think I should of used “whilst” there’. I am Canadian and I believe, as many have said, that “whilst” is used when it is a conjunction where it ties time together. It is not used interchangeably as you will never say “let’s wait a whilst”. I also believe for people to think that using a word that is a part of English is to sound posh or snobbish is rather fastidious. It clearly means you don’t know nor understand the word.

  • SteepSix

    “He was tied to a lamp-post WHILST his owner finished the shopping.” — This usage does indicate that ‘he’, was tied to a lamp-post DURING his owners shopping (at the same time)…

    “He was tied to a lamp-post WHILE his owner finished the shopping.” — Could indicate that “he” was tied to the lamp-post WHEN his owner was doing his shopping…

    I grew up hearing both words used by educated people in their respective contexts and hence developed this understanding of the two words. — I don’t say “whilst” to sound clever or learned. I use it so as to sound correct to myself with the language I speak!

  • Peter Foulds

    MichaelG. I don’t mind if you use my name whilst you insult me. I stand by my claim that illiterate people use ‘whilst’ to sound educated. They do, you know.

  • GH

    I am with Peter F on this one; my understanding is tha whilst means whereas and while means during or whereas. Hence you can always use while but whilst has a more limited usage.

  • Amanda

    I am an Australian, and I had no idea that whilst was regarded by some people as posh. I came to this site wondering when one should be used rather than the other. Sometimes whilst sounds better to me, other times while. For example I use whilst for comparison:
    A is used to perform B whilst C is used to perform D.
    To describe myself doing two things at once:
    I ate a chocolate bar whilst reading the paper.
    Sometime I use while:
    Why don’t you read something while you are waiting for the train?

    I think whilst can make a sentence sound crisp and clean, which is probably why I use it. If you think it sounds sounds better in formal writing then go ahead and use it. Imagine if nobody ever used words that were regarded by some people as posh.

  • Helena

    As an American and native AE-speaker who’s lived in several parts of the country, I can only stress what was said above on the subject: Americans don’t say “whilst”. It doesn’t occur in our thought process. We don’t write it. I’d never even heard the word spoken before college, or if it occurred in a book, I probably thought it was either a typo or so colloquial as to be completely out of date. (College = uni to BE-speakers). It’s accepted, maybe with a raised eyebrow, if a person with a British, Australian, or NZ accent, etc., uses it in conversation. But an American other than maybe, possibly a New Englander using ‘whilst’? It wouldn’t even compute.

    Although (not ‘whilst’!) I see plenty of back and forth above by BE-speakers, and have fun with it, some of the big debate comes from the word invading our AE ‘bubble’. For example: Suddenly the American media has their anchors dropping it… or BE-speaking writers forcing the word in fanfiction (yes, I’ve read it…) into American characters’ mouths. Daryl Dixon of The Walking Dead (tv), seemingly the epitome of Southern redneck, even knowing of the word, much less using it? Stop!

    Anyway, the word does sound pretentious to my ears, but I won’t begrudge those who live in other countries who feel it’s proper English, not that I don’t cringe every time I hear/read it. Oddly, we commonly use amongst and burnt (as an adjective, not as a verb) in my region, but learnt in any context comes across as totally hillbilly. Don’t even get me started with “en suite”. And that’s English (AE and BE apparently) for you.

  • Leila

    I’m not sure why so many here think “whilst” isn’t used by Americans – I’ve lived in the US most of my life (since 1991) and I hear and read “whilst” frequently, and use it myself sometimes. Could it be regional differences, like how only certain parts of the country is “cellar” more common than “basement” maybe? Or maybe it’s more common for younger people who were raised on Doctor Who and Harry Potter and spend more time online where different varieties of English are more likely to be encountered.

  • Wayne

    “While” is modern English. “Whilst” is archaic.

  • Maeve Maddox

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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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 Kelly

    I was taught (Lancashire Grammar school early 70’s) that the difference is:
    While = during
    Whilst = contrast

    “While John went by train, I went by car.” = Journeys were contemporaneous.

    “Whilst John went by train I went by car.” = Different modes of transport that may or may not have been contemporaneous.

    Alternatively:

    “While eating, I read a book” makes sense.

    “Whilst eating, I read a book” is nonsense.

Leave a comment: