While and whilst

Posted on 27 January 2015 by Lucy Gregory

It seems these two words cause a fair bit of controversy and confusion. I’ve worked with companies that ban ‘whilst’ outright and others that insist on it. And I’ve lost count of the people who’ve asked me to explain the difference. So here’s the lowdown.

Using ‘while’ and ‘whilst’ interchangeably

While and whilst mean the same thing when used as conjunctions. In this context, there are three common definitions:

1. To mean during the time that or at the same time as

‘While I was eating lunch, I saw a pig fly past the window.’

2. To mean whereas

‘I was gobsmacked, while the pig seemed fine.’

3. To mean although

‘While John said he believed me, I knew he didn’t.’

In all these examples, you could correctly replace while with whilst. Some people think whilst sounds more formal and prefer it for business writing. I have no argument with that, although while is much more common. A Google search for while brings up 3.8 billion hits compared with a meagre 203 million hits for whilst.

I should point out that a couple of writing authorities in the past condemned the use of both words to mean whereas and although. Everyone else ignored them and all the dictionaries I checked (Cambridge, Oxford, Collins and Macmillan) include these definitions. Fowler’s Modern English Usage is also happy with the additional definitions: ‘[the different] uses of while (or, in British English, also of whilst) pose no threat to one another and are all part of the normal apparatus of language.’

‘While’ as a noun

If you use while as a noun, you can’t swap it for whilst. Examples include meanwhile, worthwhile, for a while and a little while ago.

Native English speakers are unlikely to get this wrong, but it can be confusing for non-native speakers.

American usage

It’s worth bearing in mind that whilst is not used in the US at all. Those who do use it are seen as pompous, archaic or (as I read on one US grammar website) ‘pretending to be British’.

For this reason many global organisations, even those with a UK base, now prefer while.