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Difference Between: While vs. Whilst

In British English, while (hwaɪl) and whilst (hwaɪlst) mean the same thing when they are conjunctions (words that connect two ideas). As conjunctions, they can both mean ‘at the same time’ (e.g. Never do your homework while/whilst you watch TV) or ‘although/whereas’ (e.g. While/whilst it’s good to be out in the sun, we need to protect ourselves with sun cream). American English speakers never use whilst, and British English speakers only use it to be formal. In both British and American English, we can also use while as a verb or noun.

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While or Whilst?

As we said, in British English, we can use either while or whilst when they connect two ideas in a sentence. There are two main meanings of while/whilst in this sense. The first meaning is ‘at the same time’:

  • Vivian was talking while Dianna was trying to get to sleep. (correct)
  • Vivian was talking whilst Dianna was trying to get to sleep. (correct)

In these two sentences, while and whilst are between the two ideas, but we can also put them at the beginning of the sentence (same meaning):

  • While Vivian was talking, Dianna was trying to get to sleep. (correct)
  • Whilst Vivian was talking, Dianna was trying to get to sleep. (correct)

The main differences between while and whilst here is that whilst sounds more formal and we use it more often in writing than speaking. 

Whilst is not used today in American English, but while is actually the older word and appeared in medieval times. Although British English speakers still use whilst in formal situations and writing, some people may think you are trying to appear clever or posh if you use in everyday conversation.

The other common meaning for while and whilst is to contrast two ideas. In this instance, it has a similar meaning to ‘although’ or ‘whereas’:

  • Jenny goes to the dentist every six months, while Nick goes every two months. (correct)
  • Jenny goes to the dentist every six months, whilst Nick goes every two months. (correct)

With this meaning, we can do the same thing with the word position and put while and whilst at the beginning of the sentence:

  • While Jenny goes to the dentist every six months, Nick goes every two months. (correct)
  • Whilst Jenny goes to the dentist every six months, Nick goes every two months. (correct)

In American English, they never use whilst – you can only use while for all the above sentences:

  • Vivian was talking while Dianna was trying to get to sleep. (correct)
  • Vivian was talking whilst Dianna was trying to get to sleep. (incorrect)
  • While Jenny goes to the dentist every six months, Nick goes every two months. (correct)
  • Whilst Jenny goes to the dentist every six months, Nick goes every two months. (incorrect)

Only while

As a noun or verb (in both British and American English), we can only use while. 

We use while as a noun to mean ‘a period of time’:

  • Rachel hadn’t seen Joe for a long while. (correct)
  • Rachel hadn’t seen Joe for a long whilst. (incorrect)
  • It takes quite a while to learn a new language. (correct)
  • It takes quite a whilst to learn a new language. (incorrect)

We use while as a verb to mean ‘to spend time pleasantly’ (usually with the word away):

  • The children whiled away the afternoon playing video games. (correct)
  • The children whilsted away the afternoon playing video games. (incorrect)
  • Laura and Jane would while away the summers on the beach. (correct)
  • Laura and Jane would whilst away the summers on the beach. (incorrect)

To be 100% sure that you’re never wrong, the easiest thing to do is always use while. Even in British English, it’s better to use while when speaking (to sound less formal) and only use whilst in your writing.

What does while mean?

Conjunction: ‘at the same time’.

Synonyms: simultaneously, during that time, as, whilst.

Set expressions: worth one’s while (while means ‘effort’ in this expression), once in a while, strike while the iron is hot, make hay while the sun shines.

Additional meanings: 

  1. Conjunction for contrast – similar to ‘whereas’, ‘although’, ‘on the other hand’, ‘however’ – e.g. Some think it’s a good idea to express your opinion, while others think you should keep it to yourself.
  2. Noun that means ‘for a period of time’ – e.g. Kelly told her son he wouldn’t see Sean for a while.
  3. Verb that means ‘to spend time pleasantly’ – e.g. It’s easy to while away a summer in the garden.

What does whilst mean?

Conjunction: ‘at the same time’.

Synonyms: simultaneously, during that time, as, while.

Set expressions: Although whilst has the same meaning as while in some expressions, we don’t tend to use it in them.

Additional meanings: 

Conjunction for contrast – similar to ‘whereas’, ‘although’, ‘on the other hand’, ‘however’ – e.g. Some think it’s a good idea to express an opinion, whilst others think you should keep it to yourself.

Quiz: while or whilst?

Spend a short while on this quiz to test your knowledge of while vs. whilst! We’re focused on British English usage here. You could listen to some relaxing music while you do it to while away the time…

  1. In American English, only use _______. In British English, use _______when you want to be more formal.
    a. while / whilst
    b. whilst / while
  2. Julie always listens to podcasts_______ she does the ironing.
    a. while
    b. whilst
    c. both possible
  3. ________ Jim was giving his presentation, the audience were falling asleep.
    a. while
    b. whilst
    c. both possible
  4. _________ Madrid is pleasant in May, it’s too hot in August.
    a. while
    b. whilst
    c. both possible
  5. The current champions only need three points to win, _________ the team in second need ten.
    a. while
    b. whilst
    c. both possible
  6. The elderly man asked the woman if she would look after his dog _________he went into the shop.
    a. while
    b. whilst
    c. both possible
  7. The builders promised the job would only last a short_______ longer.
    a. while
    b. whilst
    c. both possible
  8. Our children ________ away too much time on social media.
    a. while
    b. whilst
    c. both possible
  9. Jean said she had thought about quitting her job for a _______.
    a. while
    b. whilst
    c. both possible
  10. Darren told his friends that it wasn’t worth their_________ going to the new bar in town.
    a. while
    b. whilst
    c. both possible

Answers:

  1. a)
  2. c)
  3. c)
  4. c)
  5. c)
  6. c)
  7. a)
  8. a)
  9. a)
  10. a)
Click here to download this post via our mobile website!
Download: This blog post is available as a convenient and portable PDF that you can take anywhere. Click here to get a copy. (Download)
Sam S.
— ESL Tutor.
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