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I think most folk happily use either "while" or "whilst". I've a vague recollection that at one time "while" indicated the passing of time and "whilst" was essentially the same as "whereas" or "although".

So using while for time passing...

While I was walking down the street the sun was shining.

... and whilst for whereas/although...

Whilst I was walking down the street I often prefer to hop.

Any views?

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Some interesting answers below, but not quite answering the question. "While" and "Whilst" are accepted to be interchangeable in current usage, but my question was when did this happen? –  Nick Pierpoint Aug 24 '10 at 9:40
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Shakespeare wrote "whiles" in this sense (eg Macbeth, II:1: "Whiles I threat, he lives"), so that form goes back more than 400 years. –  Colin Fine Feb 10 '11 at 15:15
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Does that second sentence actually have good construction? –  buildsucceeded Jul 22 '11 at 16:29
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7 Answers

up vote 6 down vote accepted

Always taking a bit of a chance using the Internet to answer an Internet question, but Daily Writing Tips says that not only are while and whilst interchangeable, but that in fact while is the original version. The very authoritative Michael Quinion backs this up on World Wide Words (and that is a site well worth visiting for anyone interested in the English language).

So I think your question proceeds from a false premise: they haven't come to be used to mean the same thing, they do mean the same thing, and there is nothing wrong with using while in all cases. (And to answer the question that wasn't asked, since it is shorter than whilst and clearly understood by US as well as British English-speakers, I'd say stick with while every time.)

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While I was reading your informative answer, a thought occurred to me: whilst it seems clear that "while" and "whilst" are interchangeable, I still perceive a difference when I say each word. Since English grammar is defined by common usage I will keep plugging away until everyone comes round to my view of this small corner of the world. It will then be the view of the world. Might take some time :) –  Nick Pierpoint Jan 30 '11 at 15:47
    
@Nick - good luck with that! –  AAT Jan 30 '11 at 22:07
    
yes - think I might need it. Accepting this answer is first step! –  Nick Pierpoint Jan 31 '11 at 14:44
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I read once that "whilst" is preferred if you think that starting your sentence with "while" could change the meaning. Consider this sentence:

While I walk I don't often whistle.

That could mean, "I walk, but I don't often whistle", or it could mean "I don't often whistle while I walk". Changing it to:

Whilst I walk I don't often whistle.

Removes that ambiguity.

I admit that the sentence itself is poorly constructed, but it does show one reason you'd use "whilst" over "while".

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My mind interprets "While I walk I don't often whistle" means "I don't often whistle while I walk," while inserting a comma means "I walk, but I don't often whistle": "While I walk, I don't often whistle." –  Eruditass Aug 6 '10 at 16:37
    
Apologies for the slow response - summer holidays! I think you're saying the same as me - in your second example you are using "whilst" where you could say "Although I walk I don't often whistle". –  Nick Pierpoint Aug 24 '10 at 9:39
    
Perhaps I was wrong about it removing the ambiguity, because the second example is supposed to mean the opposite: "I don't often whistle while I walk." –  Matt Hamilton Aug 24 '10 at 23:25
    
that's my frustration :) - now we've lost the distinction between While and Whilst the sentences above are ambiguous. –  Nick Pierpoint Sep 20 '10 at 23:13
    
How does it 'remove that ambiguity' unless the words are defined differently and exclusively of each other? Aren't you into something there?! You could have got another PhD or should I register for one :) –  Kris Dec 1 '13 at 5:44
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While and whilst annoy me. Same goes for among and amongst. As far as I'm concerned, the number one rule should always be don't opt for the -st equivalent simply because it sounds more distinguished.

Generally, I find 'whilst' more befitting when preceding a present participle. With that said, the following take on your example seems a tad more agreeable:

Whilst walking down the street, the sun was shining.

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Is it correct to remove the noun here? –  BBischof Aug 9 '10 at 22:35
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It annoys me that "whilst" is now taken to be a 'posher' version of "while" that only us snooty English folks use. I think historically there was a perfectly good distinction between "whilst" meaning although/whereas and "while" indicating the passage of time. Just another example of a reducing lack of clarity in our language. –  Nick Pierpoint Aug 24 '10 at 9:45
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@BBischof, If you see the sun walking down the street, it's correct to remove the noun in the first clause. –  buildsucceeded Jul 22 '11 at 16:29
    
@ickydog, exactly my point. –  BBischof Jul 22 '11 at 22:03
    
See my comment at Matt Hamilton's answer. –  Kris Dec 1 '13 at 5:44
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It seems they are interchangeable, but whilst is primarily used by the British.

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Alternatively, "It seems they are interchangeable, while whilst is primarily British." –  fortunate1 Feb 10 '11 at 14:40
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Or, "It seems they are interchangeable, whilst whilst is primarily British." :-) –  Jez Feb 25 '11 at 14:40
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"whilst" is "while" plus the suffix "-s" (with "-t" added by analogy with "amongst", "amidst"). The earliest citation in the OED for "whilst" as a conjunction meaning "while" is 1375. So maybe that's the answer to your question.

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To me, whilst means something that occured during another activity — "whilst reading, I enjoyed a glass of wine" — and while means a period of time which is sometimes unspecified — "It may be a long while before I meet you again".

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In your second example, while is a noun. The question is about conjunctions. –  RegDwigнt Aug 10 '13 at 13:09
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Of course, when used as a conjunction, they’re generally interchangeable. But while is preferable because it’s the plainer choice of words.

However, I can think of an example of whilst being preferable, in that can it better convey the meaning (by itself) of “while on the one hand” than can while (by itself).

Writing about one of Alfred the Great’s initiatives in education, Justin Pollard writes:

Whilst the training of the children of nobles at court could be directly controlled by him, ensuring a future generation of able administrators, those already more advanced in years (and backward in habit) proved harder to persuade.

Using while there instead does not work as well.

I’m curious about the sentiment out there. Agree? Disagree?

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Ensure that what you say is indeed a direct and canonical answer to the question, or at least that it answers the question in some way. Anything else is mere commentary/ opinion. Do not risk down votes. –  Kris Dec 1 '13 at 5:32
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