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Assume makes an ass out of u and me OR What I don’t know about grammar I could write in doorstep-fat book

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In a publishing company, you might expect everyone to be utter grammar boffins, but some things still send us running to the dictionary (and wish there was a reliable and comprehensive book of English grammar – Fowlers is not enough….anyone got any suggestions of good ‘uns?).

 This morning, a colleague asked me the difference between “whilst” and “while”.

At first, I felt pretty confident that they did have different meanings, and that “whilst” was often misused – eg people used it to say, “Whilst I was brushing my teeth, I got a phone call” when as any fule kno, it’s “While I was brushing my teeth”. Whilst, I thought, was only to be used in situations where you want to present contrasting concepts: “Whilst one might argue that Buffy is the greatest television show of both the 20th and the 21st centuries, it is admittedly possible that in the remaining 90 years of this century, something better might possibly come along.”

But, one dictionary check later, I realized I was wrong. In UK English, at least according to Collins, while and whilst are utterly interchangeable in their meanings (even if whilst is much less common).

And then it struck me: I’d always assumed that “whilst” was used incorrectly because I’d noticed that a lot of people use it who generally write badly. Perhaps because they think it sounds fancy? I’d been tarring “whilst” with the same brush as people who confuse you’re and your. But the word egg is on my face now.

Unless anyone wants to tell me I was right after all? Which would make me feel better about me, though slightly shaky about our work copy of Collins.


6 responses »

  1. Yes well, I’d still classify ‘whilst’ as a word that you’d find in sentences containing ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ – in effect, not in common usage anymore. Although it does roll off the tongue easier when used before a vowel, like ‘I’.

    There seem to be a lot of examples like this in English. Take ‘someone’ and ‘somebody’ or ‘anyone’ and ‘anybody’. Completely interchangeable? Apparently, although there’s no shortage of argument on the matter.

  2. Hmm, I’m now mulling over the someone/somebody question… no idea! English is weird with a beard.

  3. You need “Grammar and Style for examination candidates and others” by Michael Dummett – by far the best book on English usage for people who care. Sadly it’s out of print, but there are lots of cheap copies flying around on t’internet.

    It doesn’t mention “whilst” though 😦

  4. Thanks Howard, I shall root it out (whilst or not) – I’m writing a book about Grammar (well, about to start researching one), so I need as much grist to my grammar mill as possible.

    How you doing by the way? If a blog comment is the right place to ask!


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