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.
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’:
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):
The main differences between while and whilst here is that whilst sounds more formal and we use it more often in writing than speaking.
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’:
With this meaning, we can do the same thing with the word position and put while and whilst at the beginning of the sentence:
In American English, they never use whilst – you can only use while for all the above sentences:
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’:
We use while as a verb to mean ‘to spend time pleasantly’ (usually with the word away):
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.
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.
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.
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! Check out this other article for more on commonly confused words in English.
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