Q: In Origins of the Specious, you say “while” and “whilst” mean the same thing, but the Brits and Aussies on a Facebook grammar group feel otherwise. For instance, an Aussie with a British education says “whilst” should be used to mean “although” and “while” for things happening simultaneously. Your thoughts?
A: I can’t find any evidence to back up the suggestion that “while” and “whilst” have different functions in British English.
From my reading of British sources, it appears that both “while” and “whilst” have two functions:
1. to show duration (meaning “during the time that” or “at the same time as”);
2. to show contrast (meaning “although” or “whereas”).
The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, published in the UK, has this to say: “The primary meaning of while and whilst is durational, but they have a secondary sense equivalent to whereas.”
The example given for this second meaning is “While/Whilst the first act was excellent, the second seemed rather dull.” The authors note that “the meaning expressed here is contrast, not co-duration.” (Page 737.)
Elsewhere the book has examples of while used for both functions, duration as well as contrast: “They insisted on talking while I was trying to get on with my work” … and … “While I don’t agree with what she says, I accept her right to say it.” (Page 1078.)
The Oxford English Grammar has no discussion of “whilst,” but the original 1926 edition of Henry Fowler’s A Dictionary of Modern English Usage makes no differentiation between the words.
Fowler’s section on the subject is headed “while (or whilst),” and the examples for duration as well as contrast use “while”: “While she spoke, the tears were running down” … and … “While this is true of some, it is not true of all.”
The latest edition, The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage (1996), edited by R. W. Burchfield, makes no such differentiation either, except to note that “whilst” is not used in American English.
The updated examples show “while” used both ways: “He enjoyed drawing while he was being read to” and “While domestic happiness is an admirable ideal, it is not easy to come by.”
The only “whilst” examples in the New Fowler’s show the word used in the temporal sense: “… whilst on fishing expeditions on the other side of the Irish Sea.”
Finally, the Oxford English Dictionary has historical evidence for both words used both ways, with no notations indicating that one usage is better than the other for some purposes.
It may be true that some British and Australian speakers feel that there’s a difference between “while” and “whilst” – that “while” is better in the temporal sense and “whilst” in the sense of “although.”
But I haven’t been able to verify such a preference among British grammarians, lexicographers, or usage experts.