While vs. Whilst

By Maeve Maddox

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A reader asks:

what is the difference between while and whilst?

Both while and whilst have been in the language for a very long time. While was in use in Old English; whilst is a Middle English development of while. As conjunctions they are interchangeable in meaning, but whilst has not survived in standard American English.

I waited whilst Mugabe delivered what he thought were his pearls of wisdom…

I waited while breakfast was finished.

To the American ear whilst sounds quaint. Some British and Canadian speakers think it sounds literary or old-fashioned, but many British speakers prefer it to while.

Here are some quotations from newspapers:

… Why do flies gather inside a room, whilst bees and butterflies somehow avoid the open door or window?
Jill Shimwell, Bebington(www.theguardian.com)

… has become the first major casualty of England’s World Cup campaign after dislocating his right shoulder while running near the team’s base on the Gulf of Finland. The England manager suffered the injury while jogging … (www.theguardian.com)

… sheriff’s deputies in Kansas who were shot while transporting inmates from a jail to a court hearing on Friday died of their injuries, the police in Kansas City, (www.nytimes.com)

… agency that takes custody of children separated from their parents, have said that the children will not be reunited while their parents remain in custody. But reunification demands will increase as more parents are released from … (www.latimes.com)

Occasions When Only “While” Will Do

As the Oxford Dictionaries site points out, the world “while” can be used as a noun, verb, or preposition – “whilst” cannot.

Here are some sentences where only “while” will do, whichever side of the Atlantic you’re on.

It took me a while to find the report you wanted. (Use of “while” as a noun.)

He kept me waiting all the while. (Use of “while” as a noun.)

I’ll while away the hours with some knitting. (Use of “while” as a verb.)

She’ll be there four while six. (Use of “while” as a preposition, meaning “until”. Now archaic or regional – e.g. you’ll often hear this in the Yorkshire area of England.)

The word “whilst” wouldn’t work as an alternative in any of these sentences.

Note that while the use of “a while” as a noun is very normal, the use of “the while” and “while” as a verb are fairly unusual and might sound a little archaic or odd.

Here are some versions of the above sentences that would sound more contemporary:

He kept me waiting all the while

= He kept me waiting the whole time.

I’ll while away the hours with some knitting.

= I’ll pass the time with some knitting.

She’ll be there four while six.

= She’ll be there from four until six.

Is it a “A While” or “Awhile”?

You might be wondering whether “a while” or “awhile” is the correct word for a particular sentence.

There are a couple of things to note here:

  • You can’t write “a whilst” – because “while” is being used as a noun.
  • You can’t use “a while” and “awhile” interchangeably – they mean different things.

A while is a noun that means “a period of time”, and is often (though by no means always) preceded by the word “for” – e.g. “Please wait for a while”.

Awhile is an adverb, which means “for a period of time”. It isn’t ever preceded by the word “for”.

Here are some sentences illustrating the difference:

Please read your book quietly for a while.

This meeting took a while.

I’ll be able to help you in a while.

Please wait awhile.

If you’re not ready yet, don’t worry: I’ll sit awhile.

He dawdled awhile at the entrance.

If you’re not sure which one you want, try replacing “a while” with another noun, such as “a minute” or “an hour”,  and “awhile” with another adverb, such as “patiently”:

Please read your book quietly for a minute.

This meeting took an hour.

I’ll be able to help you in a minute.

Please wait patiently.

If you’re not ready yet, don’t worry: I’ll sit patiently.

He dawdled patiently at the entrance.

Ultimately, it’s worth remembering that most uses of the word “awhile” will sound a little archaic. Generally, the use you want is “a while” – just check whether you can replace it with “a minute” (or “an hour”, “a day”, “a week”) and if so, then you’re using it correctly.

See also Among vs Amongst

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