While or whilst?

question-mark-2546106_960_720I never thought of while/whilst until recently, when I read a long piece of writing consisting almost entirely of whilst which, frankly, did my head in!  Apparently, they are interchangeable, and whilst sounds posher. 

Does it, though? 

Whilst in the bath, I read my book.

While in the bath, I read my book.

Say it out loud – which is easier to roll off the tongue probably depends upon your dialect ( though I must admit that when I just read those back: whilst struck me as past tense, and while as present in terms of how I said ‘read’).

Some feel whilst is quaint and others suggest it is dated. It seems the jury is out, but this forum on the Guardian website proved interesting.

I quite enjoyed this comment (ouch):

In modern British English, ‘whilst’ is supposedly a more formal variant of ‘while’. It is also, in my experience, particularly beloved of students who write bad essays.

Dominic Watt, Department of Linguistics & Phonetics, University of Leeds

So, does it matter?

Well, the impression a piece of writing makes on the reader is important. This copywriting agency blog suggests exactly what I did to the piece I was checking: 

“I’ve always favoured the more-relaxed and accessible while. There can be something crusty and old fashioned – even pompous – about using whilst in corporate communications, which is why I routinely delete it when I’m editing”.

The Guardian and BBC both prefer while, but they are international news organisations with global readership.

I’ll do what I always do at times like this and refer to the oracle, David Crystal. He is an adherent/supporter of ‘while’. 

Partly, it just depends upon a feel for something and how it looks. “While” in, say, a report, just looks more business-like/modern.  I’d probably generally stick with that.  But for now, I’ll while away my time thinking of something else…


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