A couple of weeks ago, I was with a client who was putting the finishing touches to an annual report. Several people had written parts of it – me, investor relations, the finance team and company secretarial – and we were ironing out the inevitable stylistic differences.

That’s when somebody raised this question: is it while or whilst?

There were plenty of theories round the table, but the simple answer is that there’s no difference in meaning.  (See the update below for more on this.)

There can, however, be a difference in the impression they make. I’ve always favoured the more-relaxed and accessible while. There can be something crusty and old fashioned – even pompous – about using whilst in corporate communications, which is why I routinely delete it when I’m editing.

A subtlety

Some people think it’s only correct to use while (or whilst) when describing a period of time. The usually sensible Economist style guide falls into this camp.

Others (such as Fowler’s Modern English Usage) think it’s perfectly allowable to use while in place of other words. In the following example, while replaces although:

While 2011 is likely to be difficult, we expect better conditions in 2012.

This use is widely accepted. On reflection, though, I’d prefer the sentence with although. All writers know when a sentence feels right and although does it for me.

An update

This post gets more hits than any other on this site, which has prompted me to add a more rigorous examination of the subject and to pick up on some of the comments people have been kind enough to leave.

There’s no difference in meaning

If you’re using while or whilst to mean ‘during the time that’ or ‘at the same time as’, then they’re interchangeable. That’s the clear conclusion in both my usual references, which are Fowler’s Modern English Usage and the Chambers Dictionary.

In both cases, the entry for whilst simply points to while, and the entry for while acknowledges whilst as an alternative. That seems to rule out a couple of differences suggested in the comments:

  • that whilst might be appropriate when expressing disagreement or contradiction, or
  • that while means ‘during this time’ and whilst means ‘during this action’.

Fowler and Chambers don’t support either distinction. If anyone has any authoritative sources that do support these views, please put them in a comment.

Cleverness and Americanisation

James’s comment makes an interesting case for whilst, which boils down to the following:

  • we shouldn’t unnecessarily restrict our vocabularies
  • a clever writer can make whilst sound ‘more correct’ than while, and
  • preferring while is symptomatic of the Americanisation of British English and its relentless dumbing down.

On the first point, I agree – partially. It’s a shame to lose words that convey subtleties of meaning or are simply pleasurable to read or say. But whilst fails the first of these tests and, in my view, fails the second one too. Unless you prefer the sound of it, whilst has nothing to add.

James’s second point is intriguing but it needs some examples to make the case. If anyone has one, please leave it in the comments. My suspicion is that even if this is possible, the degree of extra ‘correctness’ you’ll achieve won’t be worth the effort.

As far as the third point is concerned, I don’t think the case is compelling. While is a standard part of British English, not an American import. You could argue that the preference for while over whilst is down to American influence but I suspect it’s just part of a broader trend of stripping away formality, in language and in society. In any case, these things are rarely clear cut – see this article on the rise in use of amongst in American English.

This does, however, bring up another reason for using while instead of whilst: when you’re writing for an international audience. It’s interesting that both the Guardian style guide and BBC News style guide insist on the use of while. My bet is that their huge international readership is the reason.

Read more

If you’re interested in this, you should definitely read my post on three grammar ‘rules’ you should ignore.