Word Confusion: While versus Whilst

Posted April 27, 2017 by Kathy Davie in Author Resources, Self-Editing, Word Confusions, Writing

Revised as of 13 October 2017

This word confusion pair — while and whilst — mean the same thing.

While is American and being used more in Britain. Note that whilst is considered pretentious and/or quaint in America.

Whilst is rare in America, and you’re better off using whilst in fictional novels that require International English or in historical writing.

You may also want to explore the Word Confusion post, “A While vs Awhile vs While or Whilst vs Wile“.

Word Confusions…

…started as my way of dealing with a professional frustration with properly spelled words that were out of context in manuscripts I was editing as well as books I was reviewing. It evolved into a sharing of information with y’all. I’m hoping you’ll share with us words that have been a bête noir for you from either end.

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While Whilst
Credit to: Apple Dictionary.com ; Dictionary.com: while

World War I-era poster shows a waiter looking askance at a glutenous gentlemen, who has ordered five plates of food, none of which he finished.

“Sir, Don’t Waste While Your Wife Saves” by Library Company of Philadelphia has no restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons

1850s newspaper cartoon in color of a young child standing on a chair holding a sword, declaiming while surrounded by soldiers

“Comic History of Rome” by John Leech is in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Hannibal whilst even yet a child swears eternal hatred to the Romans.

Part of Grammar:
Adverb, relative;
Conjunction, subordinating;
Verb, transitive

Alternate spelling for the adverb and conjunction: whiles
Plural for the noun: while
Third person present verb: whiles
Past tense or past participle: whiled
Gerund or present participle: whiling

Adverbial Genitive;
Conjunction, subordinating;
Plural for noun: whilst
Adverb, relative:
As (indicating a contrast)

In spite of the fact that


[British, variation] Whilst

Conjunction, subordinating:
During or in the time that

Throughout the time that

  • As long as
  • All the time that

Even though

  • Although

At the same time that (showing an analogous or corresponding action)

[British] Whilst

A period of time

[the while] At the same time, meanwhile

Time and effort used in the performance of an action

[Poetic, literary] During the time that

[Archaic] Until

Pass time in a leisurely manner

Adverbial Genitive:
[Chiefly British] While

[U.S. usage] While

Conjunction, subordinating:
[Chiefly British] While

During or in the time that

Throughout the time that

  • As long as

Even though

  • Although

A period or interval of time

To wait a long while

[Archaic] A particular time or occasion

Adverb, relative:
The period while the animal remains alive is critical.

Conjunction, subordinating:
Nothing much changed while he was away.

One person wants out, while the other wants the relationship to continue.

While I wouldn’t recommend a nighttime visit…

While she appreciated the honor, she could not accept the position.

The floor was strewn with books, while magazines covered the tables.

Please light the fire while I’m cooking.

I prefer to stay inside while it’s raining.

He starts to draw, talking the while.

Hey, I’ll make it worth your while.

[Poetic, literary] …beseeching, him, the while his hand she wrung…

He determined to continue wile he could persuade her his cause was just.

Verb, transitive:
It was simply a diversion to while away the long afternoons.

Whiling away the hours, he read a book.

Adverbial Genitive:
Enjoy the season whilst it’s here.

He left whilst you were in the garden.

Conjunction, subordinating:
Whilst Lady Gwendolyn reclined…

Whilst she appreciated the honor, she could not accept the position.

My ladies and I work our embroidery whilst we visit.

Whilst Frank is a good worker, he does not do well as a farmer.

Her sister had fallen whilst walking in her sleep at night.

Raspberries have a matte, spongy surface whilst blackberries have a taut, shiny skin.

It hath been a whilst since you last visited.

It was whilst we explored the woods that we saw the unicorn.

We did not see Matthieu whilst we visited.

It has been a whilst since anyone has lived on the estate, and it has gone to ruin.

History of the Word:
1 Old English hwīl meaning period of time is of Germanic origin and related to the Dutch wijl and the German Weile. An abbreviation of Old English thā hwīle the meaning the while that.
By Late Middle English it evolved as whiles + -t.

C’mon, get it out of your system, bitch, whine, moan…which words are your pet peeves? Also, please note that I try to be as accurate as I can, but mistakes happen or I miss something. Email me if you find errors, so I can fix them…and we’ll all benefit!

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Pinterest Photo Credits:

Quotes with Word “Whilst” is courtesy of Combiboilersleeds.com and Two Cable Cars in the Same Trackway in San Francisco is Goodshoped35110s’ own work in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

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