Whilst and while are synonymous as a conjunction or relative adverb. However, “whilst” is chiefly British, and it never replaces “while” as a noun or verb.
What is the difference between whilst and while?
English speakers have used the words while and whilst for hundreds of years. But when it comes to Modern English, many writers are unsure of when to use either term. The word “whilst” certainly sounds fancier, but these terms don’t always have the same meaning.
When are while and whilst the same word?
The words while and whilst share the same meanings as subordinating conjunctions, where they join two clauses to describe simultaneous events or a contrast between ideas. For example,
- “While/whilst I understand the purpose of chores, it doesn’t mean I enjoy them.” (contrasting an idea)
- “While/whilst I go to the store, can you wash the dishes?” (simultaneous events)
While and whilst also share the same meaning as relative adverbs (e.g., where, when, why, and which) to introduce a relative clause. As a relative adverb, “whilst” and “while” replace the meaning of ‘during which.’ For example,
- “The storm arrived around midnight, while/whilst I was asleep.”
- “Jack snuck into the kitchen for cookies while/whilst I was preparing for work.”
In either case, the main difference between while and whilst involves regional dialects:
- While is standard English for American English.
- British English uses while and whilst (although “whilst” is formal).
Which came first: whilst or while?
We often see grammar enthusiasts debate over whether “whilst” or “while” came first. But if you want to understand the origins of these conjunctions, it’s crucial to consider another source of confusion: “whiles.”
As noted within the New Oxford American Dictionary, the word “whiles” is also a conjunction (albeit, an uncommon one) (“Whiles” 1969). Middle English “whiles” is an archaic form of “while,” where it was used within adverbs to mean “somewhiles” for ‘formerly’ or “otherwhiles” for ‘at times’ (1969).
The Brits’ use of “whilst” began in late Middle English as a reconstruction of “whiles,” where the “-t” was added to the end (“Whilst” 1969). Similar regional differences occur with terms like “amidst vs. amid” or “amongst vs. among,” where words ending with “-st” are more common in England, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand than in the United States.
However, there was a time when “whilst” occurred interchangeably with “while” for American vocabularies. According to Garner’s Modern English Usage, the word “whilst” became obsolete from American English throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, noting that it “struck many American readers as reeking with pretension unless the source was British” (“Whilst” 963).
Before we move on, it’s worth noting that the conjunctions while and whilst are Middle English abbreviations of Old English thā hwīle (‘the while that’), stemming from Old English ‘hwīle’ (‘period of time’). As explained by Fowler’s Modern English Usage, the conjunctions’ initial definitions meant “during the time that” or “at the same time as.”
The nontemporal meaning of while and whilst didn’t emerge until the 16th century (Early Modern English), where English speakers integrated the conjunction to mean ‘although’ or ‘whereas’ (“While” 882).
So, there you have it: First came the noun (while), then the adverb (whiles), then the conjunction (whiles), and then, shortly after, the conjunctions (while and whilst).
Additional differences for whilst vs while
Outside of conjunctions and relative adverbs, American English uses “while” as a verb and noun. But as it turns out, so do English speakers everywhere else. This is because “while” is not always synonymous with “whilst.”
As a noun and verb, the word “while” always conveys the concept of time. We use “while” as a noun to mean ‘a period of time’ and the verb to mean ‘to pass the time in a leisurely manner.’ You might recognize these terms within phrases like:
- While away the time: (the verbatim definition of “while” as a verb).
- Between whiles (archaic): ‘occurs between intervals of time.’
- Worth one’s while: Something that is worth the time and effort.
Remember: No matter where you’re from, never replace the noun or verb “while” with “whilst;” they are entirely separate words.
What does while mean?
The word “while” primarily exists as an English noun, conjunction, and verb. As a conjunction or adverb, “while” is synonymous with “whilst” (chiefly British).
While as a noun
As a noun, the word “while” means ‘an indefinite but short period of time’ or ‘the time and effort it takes to complete a task.’ Additionally, the noun “while” is often found in phrases like “a while” to mean ‘for some time.’
- “We studied new words for a while.”
- “He took a while to pick up his toys.”
- “It takes a while to gain editing access on Wikipedia.”
: Age, bit, day, duration, eternity, infinity, jiffy, lapse, length of time, minute, moment, period, perpetuity, season, second, space, span, spell, stage, stretch, stint, term, time.
: Attempt, effort, endeavor, exertion, expenditure, grind, labor, pains, shot, strain, sweat, trouble, work.
: Adroitness, dormancy, ease, idleness, inaction, indolence, inertia, languor, quiescence.
While or whilst as a conjunction
English speakers use while (or whilst) as a conjunction for two distinct purposes:
1. To describe how one or more events occur simultaneously or ‘as long as something occurs.’ For example,
- “I cleaned the house while you were at work.”
- “Let’s walk the dog while they watch The Bachelor.”
2. To contrast ideas in a manner similar to ‘although’ or ‘in spite of the fact that…’. For example,
- “While I’m unemployed, I take advantage of my time by cleaning the house.”
- “While I appreciate your love of reality television, I’d rather enjoy the sunshine and fresh air.”
: As, at the same time that, during the time that, for the period that, so long as, during, in the time, throughout the time, when, while.
: Albeit, although, as, but, despite the fact that, despite the possibility, even if, even though, even supposing, for all that, granted that, howbeit, however, in spite of the fact, much as, notwithstanding, though, when, whereas, while.
While as a verb
Lastly, the transitive verb “while” means ‘to pass time in an idle, pleasant, or leisurely manner.’ Verb forms of while include: whiled (past participle/tense), whiling (present participle/continuous tenses), and while/whiles (present tense).
- “Residents read gossip tabloids as a distraction to while away absent visitations.”
- “She spent most of college indoors and whiled the time away writing endless essays about Foucault.”
- “Overcast days are perfect for whiling away afternoons in the library.”
- “Mother whiles away her off-days sewing clothes for her grandchildren.”
Beguile, kill time, occupy, pass, spend.
How to use while vs whilst in a sentence?
The only time writers need to choose between “while” and “whilst” is when they’re using the terms as a conjunction or relative adverb. Therefore, the most important rule for usage involves regional dialects:
- American English uses “while.”
- British English may use “while” or “whilst.”
With that being said, The Word Counter has a few tips for using either term in a sentence:
#1. Avoid ambiguity with synonyms
English writers can use the conjunction while to contrast or compare independent clauses. Still, some grammarians advise against this practice when it summons the notion of ‘time.’ To avoid ambiguity, try opting for a nontemporal conjunction, such as:
- “As long as…”
- “Even if…” or “even though…”
- “Even supposing…”
- “Granted that…”
- “In spite of the fact that…” or “despite the fact that…”
- “Notwithstanding the fact that…” or “Notwithstanding that…”
#2. Never use “while” to replace “and”
According to Garner’s Modern English Usage, “while” should never replace the conjunction ‘and’ (“While” 962). For example,
- “My father is a muggle while [read as “and”] my mother, Professor McGonagall, is a professor at Hogwarts.” (Incorrect)
Correct examples of the conjunctions “while” and “and” include:
- “I’ll clean the kitchen while you fold the laundry.”
- “I cleaned the kitchen while you folded the laundry.”
- “How about I clean the kitchen, and you fold the laundry?”
#3. Avoid “while” for redundant phrases
Another common error for the word “while” involves redundant phrases like “while at the same time.” The conjunction “while” already conveys simultaneous actions, so following it with “at the same time” creates a tautology (i.e., saying the same thing twice).
Think you know the difference between while and whilst? See how well you understand these commonly confused words with the following multiple-choice questions.
- True or false: the word “whilst” requires an apostrophe.
- True or false: The frequency of “whilst” and “while” depends on a speaker’s regional dialect.
- “While” is common for which regional dialects?
a. American English
b. British English
c. Australian English
d. All of the above
- The main difference between the words “whilst” and “while” is ________________.
a. Whilst means ‘a short period of time.’
b. Whilst is not standard English in the United States.
c. Whilst means ‘a long while.’
d. While is not a noun or verb.
- The nontemporal meaning of “while” and “whilst” emerged in the ________________.
a. 11th century
b. 14th century
c. 16th century
d. 18th century
- The conjunction ___________ can describe an event that occurs while something else happens.
d. All of the above
- “Relative adverbs.” Resources for learning English, Education First, 2020.
- “To while.” Reverso Conjugation, Reverso-Softissimo, 2020.
- “While.” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th ed., Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2020.
- “While.” Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2020.
- “While.” The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2020.
- “While and whilst.” Cambridge Dictionary, Cambridge University Press, 2020.
- “While. (conjunction).” Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, 4th ed., Oxford University Press, 2015, pp. 882.
- “While,” “Whiles,” “Whilst.” The New Oxford American Dictionary, 3rd ed., Oxford University Press, 2010, pp. 1969.
- “While,” “Whilst.” Garner’s Modern American Usage, 3rd ed., Oxford University Press, 2009, pp. 962–963.
- “Whilst.” Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2020.