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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? Aug 24, 2010 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, 2011 at 15:15
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    Does that second sentence actually have good construction? Jul 22, 2011 at 16:29
  • I agree that a useful linguistic distinction has been lost. For me, whilst implies a contrast, whilst (whereas) while merely implies simultaneity. I am a committed atheist, whilst my wife is a devoted Christian. While she is in church, I am down the pub.
    – user85041
    Jul 14, 2014 at 19:23
  • "Whilst" is purely British. It doesn't exist in American English.
    – user16723
    Jul 15, 2014 at 13:14

9 Answers 9

6

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 :) Jan 30, 2011 at 15:47
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    @Nick - good luck with that!
    – AAT
    Jan 30, 2011 at 22:07
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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, 2010 at 16:37
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    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". Aug 24, 2010 at 9:39
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    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." Aug 24, 2010 at 23:25
  • that's my frustration :) - now we've lost the distinction between While and Whilst the sentences above are ambiguous. Sep 20, 2010 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, 2013 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, 2010 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. Aug 24, 2010 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. Jul 22, 2011 at 16:29
  • @ickydog, exactly my point.
    – BBischof
    Jul 22, 2011 at 22:03
  • See my comment at Matt Hamilton's answer.
    – Kris
    Dec 1, 2013 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, 2011 at 14:40
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    Or, "It seems they are interchangeable, whilst whilst is primarily British." :-)
    – Jez
    Feb 25, 2011 at 14:40
  • Good. I'm glad you told me that. Now I shall always say whilst.
    – WS2
    May 7, 2016 at 16:21
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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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I have served as an editor for a scientific journal for many years. In my observation, authors who use British English spellings also use "whilst" and "amongst". The journal is published in North American English. We consider these British spellings and always change them to "while" and "among".

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I know this is a dead thread, but it still appears in current searches, so I add this comment in the hope it comes back to life!

Although ‘while’ and ‘whilst’ can share a meaning when used as a conjunction, only ‘while’ can be used as a verb (‘while away the hours’) and a noun (‘this could take a while’). Also, ‘whilst’ conveys the meaning of ‘alternatively’, or ‘but’, or ‘whereas’, however ‘while’ means ‘at the same time’. So ‘whilst’ follows a comma, and ‘while’ does not. Example... “I told jokes while she ate lunch”. We could both be eating lunch together. “I told jokes, whilst she ate lunch”. It is now clear that I am not eating lunch, and she is not telling jokes. Another example where only ‘whilst’ works to convey a comparison... “I watch action movies, whilst you watch dramas”. This means that generally I don’t watch dramas and you don’t watch action movies. “I watch action movies while you watch dramas” means I go and watch action movies whenever you are watching dramas. I may love dramas... I just don’t like watching them with you.

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    As has become clear from the other answers (and comments to them), that distinction does not hold. Both while and whilst have both the meanings you describe here; only context and intonation tell the meanings apart, not word choice. Feb 5, 2018 at 0:07
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If there was ever a distinction in meaning -- that "whilst" meant "whereas; although" while "while" meant "at the same time as" -- it seems to have been lost by the early 19th century, as can be seen by the usage of "whilst" in the works of great writers, in contexts where the meaning of "whereas" would not fit. For example:

Whilst wandering on in this slow manner, they were again surprised ... by the sight of Mr. Darcy approaching them, and at no great distance.

-- Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, ch.43

Whilst he was watching the patient thus, the younger lady glided softly past, and seating herself in a chair by the bedside, gathered Oliver's hair from his face.

-- Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist, ch.30

A cab had driven up whilst the American had been talking.

-- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventure of the Dancing Men

-2

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, 2013 at 5:32

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