While and whilst mean the same thing only when they are used as a conjunction. In this context they mean: during the time that something else happens; in contrast with something else.
While/whilst (conjunction) – at or during the same time; even though; but in contrast.
- “The burglar broke into the house while the owners were away.” (while as a conjunction)
- “The burglar broke into the house whilst the owners were away.” (whilst as a conjunction)
In each case, while/whilst have acted as a conjunction joining the two sentences:
- “The burglar broke into the house.”
- “Meanwhile the owners were away.”
While can be used as a noun or a verb. Whilst cannot.
As a noun, while means a period of time; an interval; an uncertain duration of time. [Old English hwil]. As a verb, it means to pass the time (usually at a leisurely pace):
- “We gossiped about work for a while.” (while as a noun)
- “He talked for quite a long while.” (while as a noun)
- “We used to while away the time lazing on the beach.” (while as a verb)
- “She used to while away the hours in the meadow.” (while as a verb)
Note that whilst cannot be used in any of these sentences.
While and though
While can occasionally be used alternatively to though when acting as a conjunction:
- “While they are related they do not get on very well.”
- “Though they are related they do not get on very well.”
- “While we tried hard we lost the game.”
- “Though we tried hard we lost the game.”
In this sense, while means even though, although.
Whilst can never be used this way. In any case while cannot always be substituted. Consider the definition of though:
Though (adverb) – however, nevertheless, despite being. [Old English peah, meaning partly].
- “We went to school together. I have not seen her for years, though”
[While would not work in this sentence.]
Though (conjunction) – notwithstanding that, in spite of the fact that; although.
- “Gerald never called me, even though he said he would.”
- “Gerald never called me, while he said he would.” [incorrect]
Whilst refers to something that happened at a specific time as something else whereas while is a more general statement. For example:
- “The dog was tied to a lamp post whilst his owner finished the shopping.” [a specific time]
- “I tend to tie him to a lamp post while I do the shopping.” [a general statement]
In the first sentence whilst refers to a defined period of time. It ends once the shopping is finished. The dog is untied from the lamp post. In the second sentence, we use while because the time frame is more of a general continuing statement. Whenever I go shopping I tie the dog to a lamp post. I could still be doing the shopping, or I could finish shopping, but the dog stays tied to the lamp post. You can’t tell from the sentence.
Whilst can also be used to emphasise the difference between two ideas:
- “I took the train whilst Harold took the bus.”
In this sentence whilst emphasises the contrast between the two modes of transport.
Aside from all this, most agree that whilst sounds more formal than while—some might even say stilted. If you want to play it safe use while for most occasions.
By Nigel Benetton, science fiction author of Red Moon Burning and The Wild Sands of Rotar
Last updated: Tuesday, 21st April 2020