While As a Noun or Verb
While and whilst are not always interchangeable. They are only interchangeable when they are used as conjunctions (i.e., in the meanings outlined above). While can also be a noun or a verb. Whilst cannot. As a noun, while means a period of time. As a verb, it means to pass time (usually at a leisurely pace). For example:
- I lived there for a while. (while as a noun)
- She used to while away the hours in the meadow. (while as a verb
What is the difference between while and whilst?
Dr Michael Ford, London
- Hoad's etymology gives 'whilst' as a derivation of 'whiles', an adverbial form of 'while'. The 't' on the end is parasitic (cf. among~amongst, amid~amidst, etc.). 'Whilst' started to be used as a conjunction, equivalent to 'while', in the 13th century.
In modern British English, 'whilst' is supposedly a more formal variant of 'while'. It is also, in my experience, particularly beloved of students who write bad essays.
Dominic Watt, Department of Linguistics & Phonetics, University of Leeds
- The while/whilst distinction is made in several dialects, mostly those of the South. The distinction being between substantive and adverbial/conjunction. I find that contempt for this minor feature of the English language is most often harboured by those who believe it, even though a dialectal feature, to be a sign of pretention.
Rurik Greenall, Trondheim, Norway
- In some Midlands dialects, there has been a distinct difference - "whilst" meaning "during the time when" and "while" meaning "until, up to point when", e.g. "Look after this whilst I'm gone" or "Look after this while I come back". Sounds wrong to the purist, but in Rutland they would know what you meant.
S Killingworth, Wimbledon
- S Killingworth's reply reminds me of the possibly apocryphal tale about the first automatic level crossings in the Midlands - where the sign "Wait here while the lights are flashing" supposedly caused a string of near-fatalities.
W Ham Bevan, London, England
- The meaning of everyday words is to be found in the way we use it rather than in the OED or the Internet. By this rationale there are two major differences that spring to mind: first, 'while' can be a noun ('in a while') whereas 'whilst' cannot; second, 'while' can mean either 'during the time when' or 'whereas' while 'whilst' has only the first of these meanings.
Peadar Mac Con Aonaigh, Brixton, UK
- While Peadar observes that the meaning of words is best derived from the way we use them rather than the OED, it is worth noting that the OED will record how we used them over time, so their contemporary uses, when lost, are still known to those who follow us. Personally, I've noted that the use of 'whilst' correlates directly and exclusively with being British.
Oliver Mullarney, San Francisco, USA
- As a British Midlander, I have some sympathy with earlier answers. However, my own bias has always been to generally use "while" for activities happening in parallel. "While I was preparing lunch, my wife was gardening." In contrast, I have used "whilst" where there is more of a contradiction. "Whilst it may be necessary or desirable to protect populations from cruel and corrupt governments, it is not necessarily our business to undertake regime change." Truly sorry about such a topical subject, but it's the best I could think of, and "while" would do perfectly well. I'm prepared to accept that any distinction is subtle at best-though I'd like to know what is generally accepted. Above all, if there is a genuine distinction, let's have it out, and not let good words go to waste or be corrupted. I await with trepidation the first dictionary to list "principal" and "principle" as synonyms, likewise "dependant" and dependent", etc.,etc. My car will continue to have tyres and I will not tire of driving it, darn you !
Mike West, Hilperton, Wiltshire, UK
- I had always understood the use in English to be determined by the next word that follows. Use 'while' if the next word begins with a consonant. If followed by a word beginning with a vowel, then the 'st' form gives a more euphonious transition: compare 'while I was' to 'whilst I was'. The same rule applies to among/amongst. To my ear, it ends up as the choice between between sounding like Adele (all glo'al stops) or Sue Lawley (word endings horribly audible).
Liz Watson, Haltwhistle England
- My American boss just said to me that to an American 'whilst' isn't a word. I had said it to him as he was near my desk and I wanted to ask a question: "Whilst you are over here..." I thought about why I used the word, and it was because he wasn't already speaking to me. If he had already been speaking to me I think I would have said "while". I can't explain that in technical language. But if feels right. I can't see how that's pretentious. I certainly wouldn't have been showing off the use of my language to an American.
Kath, Bath UK
- Having trawled through a number of forums without finding a definitive answer, it seems to me that one explanation offered that is most plausible is the idea that whilst should be used in close association with a verb. That is, while = during this time (emphasis on duration) vs. whilst = during this action (emphasis on action) This distinction may be too subtle and for that reason seem false, but as someone else has pointed out elsewhere, 'whilst' cannot be substituted for the noun form of 'while': "You would not use it for the noun form of while: Im going away for a whilst is a no-no." http://blogs.library.duke.edu/answerperson/2005/05/31/whilst-v-while/ Perhaps someone with a more solid grounding in linguistics might explain why this is so.
L Shen, New Zealand
- Well said, Kiwi! It is always from the colonials (as we were once known) that the finest understanding and usage of the English language may be had. Indian and Irish writers are proof of this. Also those Europeans for whom (like us) English was a second language, i.e. Joseph Conrad.
Biddy, Galway Ireland
- Typing this while drinking my tea. Whilst there may be a debate, the answer is simple: Mike West is right.
Paul Campbell, Twickenham England
- "Whilst" has always struck me as a fancyfied form of "while" and one that allows excessive opportunity for spelling error. "While" is surely sufficient? And Mike West needs to curb his ire otherwise he might find his tyres hitting the kerb.
Brian Smith, Radlett UK
- I have been reading for a whilst, the reasons you educated blokes give to explain the difference "While" and "Whilst" whilst my tea got coldER See you later Alligater In a while Crocodile
Ronald Becker, Nottingham (but Londoner) UK
- When I was trying to search to similarity in German (Forgive me, but it is the only Germanic language that I know), I found that "-s" endings are often found in adverbs from nouns, eg in the pair of 'Eben' (noun: night) and 'ebens' (adv: at night). I believe the "-st" ending in English has the same effect - making nouns into adverbs. In this case, "while" was believably a noun itself, and "whilst" was the related adverb, at least it was. As for use of "while" as an adverb, I believe that it was the descendant of "whilst", having the "-st" ending dropped, as well as the "-st" dropping in the 2nd person singular verbs and the "-th" shift to "-s" in the 3rd person singular verbs. And thus explains also the cases for "among/amongst", "amid/amidst", etc. This looks like a good explanation to me, but if I am wrong, I beg you right it. Ps, I personally use "while" most of the time, but I often use "whilst" to make things look formal and serious.
Natheniel Becken, Kowloon Hong Kong
- I refer to Biddy of Galway's answer above. English wasn't Joseph Conrad's second language, it was something like his ninth!! That makes his writing even more impressive.
Peter Barnes, Manchester UK
- L Shen's explanation comes closest to my understanding: that while was used for parallel actions (I typed a message while listening to music) and whilst for interruptive (the phone rang whilst I was watching TV). I say 'was' because whilst always seems wrong to my ears, almost as archaic as saying doth instead of does. As a magazine editor for 25 years, I have always avoided the word in my publications. However, I am now seeing it being used more often, not less. I know this sounds terribly judgmental, but it seems to be used predominantly by people whose grammar usage is generally poor. I can't recall ever seeing whilst in copy from a professional writer.
Steve Parker, Birmingham UK
- I agree with Mike West. I use "A whilst B" to imply that to some extent, B stays true in spite of A. "While", on the other hand, has no implicit implication. I grew up in Middlesbrough, but have lived in California for 15 years. I only recently learned that Americans are unaware of any distinction. Many dislike the use of "whilst" and "amongst", considering them to be snobbish.
John Richardson., Calabasas, California. USA
- Thank you Dominic Watt. I'm reading an essay which uses 'whilst'. I know what mark to give it now.
fjones, liverpool uk
- The lyrics of 'See you later, Alligator' by Bobby Charles and performed later by Bill Hayley and his Comets went: 'after 'while, crocodile.'(after a while).This has never been a common use of the Word 'while' in English. Bob Dylan also uses it in 'The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest' as a reference to Bill Haley's hit.
John Chadderton, Birminham England
- I speak English as a second language as I am Xhosa speaking but I am surprised that this debate continued after L Shen's comment. It's one that has made the most sense to me, see this sentence: Where is your wife whilst you text so early in the morning. Why aren't you holding her while she sleeps?
X Liwani, Mthatha South Africa
- I noticed that a couple of people seemed to be using "whilst" sometimes as a marker of a subjunctive subtext. (Think "I might have tea (but I doubt I will)" as a subtext of the subjunctive usage. In my dialect of American English (Mountain West) "whilst" is not heard but "amongst" is very comfortable and widely accepted.
Susan F, Uxbridge, Massachusetts, US
- I was given to understand that "While" is the present tense and "Whilst" is the past tense. For example: "He sings while he is is in the shower." and "When he was alive, he sung whilst in the shower."
John Campbell Rees, Treherbert, Wales
- I recently heard an explanation of this on the radio. I can't remember who she was but she was called Joanna and she was a linguist. While is used to describe time, whilst is used to describe contrast. For example: "I shivered in the bathroom while I ran a bath whilst my sister stayed in her warm bed." That explanation sounds right to me.
Isabel Tripp , Cambridge, UK
- Always struggled with this one; senior civil servant, from the midlands in England, working class with an English BA (1983). In my mind, "while" will do in any case, and I'd love to learn a grammatical rule that tells me otherwise. Doesn't look like there is one - so I'll carry on! Great discussion though!
Tony Price, Worcester, UK
- My Japanese partner came into the room in a while ago, whilst I was reading all these explanations. She said that there must be a lot of bored people in the world. What on earth did she mean? Yours sincerely - Bored in New Zealand. Wait, Oh look!.. a sheep.