Technically, both while and whilst fulfil the same functions.
Americans, though, happen to use “whilst” a good deal less frequently than the Brits.
There, half of the people who found this article by Google have now gone away, leaving me free to wallow non-stop in my own self-important nonsense about this non-distinction.
The difference, as my lecturer would say, lies in euphony, or how the words sound. This is not to say, however, that how words sound doesn’t have an effect on their meaning, but we’ll get to that in a bit.
In my opinion, using “whilst” at any time means you’ll risk sounding like an ill-informed pedant, due to its archaic overtones and the precise ‘clipping’ effect (not a technical term) produced by the ‘st’ at the end. As a deliberate choice made over the more common “while”, “whilst” can make you look as though you think the distinction is important, and then what would the fellers down at the grammar club think of you?
Very little, that’s what.
Very little indeed.
Since I actually am an ill-informed pedant, it is vital that I avoid this trap. There are a few rules I use in an attempt to avoid sounding like a fusty librarian while using “whilst”, and I have listed them here on this blog here right there no down there below this text stop reading this bit it’s down there IT’S DOWN THERE
I’m sorry for shouting, but you just weren’t looking. Stop snivelling.
Option 1 — Exclusively Use Whilst Or While
Ignoring the option to never use “Whilst” at all, because that’s a waste of a perfectly good sort-of word, sticking exclusively to “Whilst” is a good way to indicate that you’re aware that the terms are interchangeable, and can be dismissed as a tic, especially in more formal writing. It doesn’t sound informal, exactly — “whilst” never will — but it does mean that your writing retains two important qualities:
- Not sounding like a fourteen-year-old trying to impress their English teacher. See also: juxtaposition.
The disadvantages of this option are that, obviously, you have to remember which word you were using in every single thing you ever write, and, less immediately obviously, the option defeats what is surely the main purpose of “whilst”; sounding different.
Option 2 — Using Whilst For Emphasis
“Whilst” takes longer to properly pronounce than “while” does, while its precisely clipped ending makes it sound more accurate. This can be used to your advantage when delivering spoken words to an audience, emphasising the most important sentences by making you speak more slowly.
In my opinion, it makes for a formiddable opener to a sentence. While the honourable gentleman… could go either way. Whilst the honourable gentleman…, by contrast, is slower, more deliberate, and acts to grab the attention before moving on to the main point.
It also seems to sound more sure of itself. The perceived arrogance of pedants plays in the word’s favour, marking out the speaker as someone who has chosen their words and thoughts with care — all that is left is for their words and thoughts to live up to the hype. Which they won’t, because they used the word “whilst”. In theory, though.
The drawback of this is that it will sound pretentious if what you have to say is stupid and trite; then again, almost anything will sound pretentious if what you have to say is stupid and trite, making the point moot.
Option 3 — Not Using “Whilst” In Front Of Consonants
Yes, this clashes with the example above, which uses whilst the. However, I believe this is generally quite a good rule to observe.
The above example was deliberately exploiting, or attempting to exploit at least, whilst’s longer sound, for the sake of rhetorical (is that the right word?) effect. In the middle of a sentence, putting “whilst” in front of a consonant just doesn’t make as much sense. It slows the sentence down, causes trips and stumbles, and breaks the flow.
Compare they sang whilst creatures danced and they sang while creatures danced. It seems to me that there is a clear delay in the first phrase/clause/whatever it is, which is just not present in the second. In my opinion, it sounds much worse.
The very worst example of this, which I see quite a lot, is whilst still. I can see how the phrase could be used for effect, as it effectively brings the sentence to a whispering halt before allowing it to start up again, but I think in general, it’s not only clunky, it’s redundant.
Option 4 — Do Whatever The Hell You Want
The final option is also the hardest, if you do it right. If you’re just using “whilst” and “while” with no regard for how they sound, that’s not quite what I mean by this option. What I mean is that the alternatives exist for a reason. Consider why the alternatives exist, and consider which alternative is better suited for the rhetorical effect you want to achieve.
Are you labouring the point, or fast approaching your conclusion? I believe that the choice of while vs. whilst can make all the difference.
So, what did I get wrong? As always, I’m interested to hear.