The Grammarphobia Blog

And while we’re at it …

Q: I once had a boss who insisted that “while” should be used only to indicate things that happen concurrently. Her favorite example of proper usage was “I looked on while the dog peed on the floor.” I didn’t argue, but I wondered if “while” was really incorrect when used in place of “although.”

A: The word “while” has been used since the 12th century to mean “during the time that” – the way your former boss insisted on using it.

But “while” has also been used since the 16th century to mean “although” or “whereas.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines this sense as meaning “at the same time that (implying opposition or contrast).”

According to the OED, this usage first appeared in print in Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost (1588), where Biron says to Ferdinand: “As, painfully to pore upon a book / To seek the light of truth; while truth the while / Doth falsely blind the eyesight of his look.”

The first “while” in the example above means although or whereas, and the second means at the same time. Since “while” can have different meanings, you have to be careful that you’re not using it ambiguously. Here’s a caveat from my grammar book Woe Is I:

“If you use while in place of although, be sure there’s no chance it could be misunderstood to mean ‘during the time that.’ You could leave the impression that unlikely things were happening at the same time, as in: While Dopey sleeps late, he enjoys vigorous exercise. Only if Dopey is a sleepwalker!”

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