While or whilst?
So should you be using while or whilst? First, some history: the word while was first recorded in Old English and it can be used as a noun, a verb, a relative adverb, a conjunction, or a preposition. Whilst is a later form and was first evidenced in the late 14th century.
Whilst is more limited in scope than while, and can only be used as a conjunction and relative adverb, so if you know the word you want is a noun, verb, or preposition, then while is the only possible option. As conjunctions and relative adverbs, while and whilst mean exactly the same:
- during the time when something is happening; at the same time as something else is happening:
I recommend not watching this movie while eating.
Anna kept us all entertained whilst we were waiting.
- whereas (used to show a contrast):
He was presented with a watch, while his wife was given a bunch of flowers.
Mark looks after the business side, whilst Diana is the expert in public relations.
- in spite of the fact that; although:
The thought of flying, while appealing, was not at the top of my list of things to do.
I detest violence but for once, whilst I still didn’t agree with it, I could understand it.
In the same way as happens with among and amongst, the chief distinction between while and whilst as conjunctions and relative adverbs is in respect of their usage. While is far more common than whilst and is significantly more prevalent in US English than it is in British English. Here’s a table of the statistics, using evidence from the Oxford English Corpus:
With only 6.9% of the occurrences of whilst appearing in US English, this form seems to be rapidly falling out of favour across the Atlantic. Bryan Garner states categorically that whilst ‘reeks of pretension in the work of a modern American writer’ and this stance is echoed by other authorities. So if you’re a US speaker or writer, you’d only be likely to use whilst if you were consciously aiming for an old-fashioned effect (for instance, if you were writing historical fiction). In all other contexts, while is the word to choose and thus avoid that dreaded reeking.
In British English, whilst incurs less opprobrium, but guides and dictionaries usually advise that while is preferable, given that it’s the most common form and may sound more up to date. If you’re writing for a particular organization or publication and you need to make the choice between while or whilst, you should always follow the relevant style manual on such matters.