whilst

When I first started marking (AmE prefers grading) essays (AmE would say papers, which is more likely to mean 'exams' in BrE university-speak) in the UK, I would correct students who used the word whilst instead of while, as in Whilst the students could write 'while', they tend to write 'whilst'. My comment would be the teacherly version of (AmE) take that stick out of your ass. I quickly learned, however, that whilst is not a punishable offense in British English.

Paul Brian's Common Errors in English Usage says: 'Although “whilst” is a perfectly good traditional synonym of “while,” in American usage it is considered pretentious and old-fashioned.' Indeed, it is. I try to not let it affect me nowadays...

11 comments

  1. I'm from Yorkshire, and we have the (somewhat annoying) habit of using 'while' in a period of time. For instance: 'What time are you working?' 'Ten while four'.

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  2. One person's 'annoying' is another's 'charming'!

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  3. The software project I work on is a collaboration between Brits and Americans. I still frequently encounter the word "whilst" in comments in source code, and keep wanting to change it to "while", but I don't. An interesting difference.

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  4. At some point I seem to have invented my own rule for distinguishing "while" from "whilst".

    When the meaning is "although" I never use "whilst", and when the meaning is "at the same time" I don't use "whilst" if the following clause contains an explicit subject. Hence, "I ate a sandwich while I was walking" or, "I ate a sandwich whilst walking".

    Where I subconsciously picked this rule up from I have no idea, but if I ever wrote a prescriptivist style guide and imposed spurious rules on everyone just because I can, this one would be on top of my list. :-)

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  5. Sounds just about right to me. I'm also not sure of a 'rule' as such but the different variants just tend to suggest themselves.

    American Usage publications tend to say that the -st forms are archaic. This may be so in the US but isn't at all true in the UK.

    Vive la difference, as they say in Holland...

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  6. For what it's worth, "whilst" has always sounded "pretentious and old-fashioned" to this Brit.

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  7. The Yorkshire (or South and East Yorks at least, and over the borders a bit into north Derbyshire and Notts) use of "while" generally replaces "until" - "I won't be back while while the Wednesday game on Thursday". Don't think "whilst" ever gets used in that form, though. Apocryphally, the introduction of level crossing signs saying "Wait while red lights flash" led to a number of fatal accidents in the area.

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  8. I hate 'whilst' and I'm British. I think it's pretentious too, and I don't think I'm the only British person who regards it as poor style. You won't see it in newspapers much, for example. Pam Peters says while:whilst AmE 1500:1, BrE 10:1.

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  9. I am British, and 30 years old for reference. "Whilst" is my default choice, not sure why I prefer it but to my ears it sounds more natural...

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  10. While I would not use whilst, I think it sounded nice when SuperNanny Jo sed it.
    In my midwestern accent it just sounds hickish.

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  11. I only became aware of 'whilst' in everyday BrE speech comparatively recently - maybe a decade - but now it seems to be the default word, and I see it a lot in AmE (maybe it only seems a lot because I ignore all the 'while's).

    Considering other -st words, I ran 'amid,amidst' through Google Ngram. 'Amidst' was ahead until 1834 in BrE, 1862 in AmE. 'Midst' is still around though declining, mainly in 'in the midst'. 'Whilst' was never ahead, anywhere, nor was 'amongst'. 'Against' is a special case since we've lost that sense of 'again'.

    My major peeve in this area is 'unbeknownst', which jars so much in the 21st century with both -be- and -st barging in there for some reason, since it seems not to mean any more than 'unknown'. In Ngram it's almost invisible for both AmE and BrE. GloWbE has more: for 'unbeknownst to': US 384 and GB 156, and for 'unknown to': US 934 and GB 905. This seems to say to me that BrE is holding out against this unnecessary archaism better than AmE, but it's still gaining ground - cf the older Ngram data. However, I was surprised to find that 'unbeknown to' returns hits of US 41 and GB 199.

    Interesting, maybe, but not enough evidence that this is a genuine AME/BrE difference.

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Abbr.

AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)