Friday, 18 July 2014

Let's talk about 'whilst'. Because. Conjunctions.

There are few words I really hate in the English language, and I don't even mind swear words. The words I typically hate are pompous and make people look like wankers - well, most of the time. And one of these words happens to be:


First of all - what the actual hell? Why are we using whilst?!

The trouble is with the w-word is that people live in two schools of thought, and from my opinion both hold a little merit.

1) 'Whilst' and 'while' mean the same thing. To Brits anyway.
Most of the research I have done on the w-word hangs on Americans telling the world about British English. The belief comes from 'whilst' being derived of 'whiles'.

'While' and 'whilst' are only interchangeable when they are conjunctions, that is, connecting two ideas together say the way we use words such as 'and' or 'but'. In this sense, 'whilst' should rarely be used at the beginning of a sentence, the same way that 'and' or 'but' is frowned upon. I'll make it known here that the whole reason I wrote this blog was due to this post on a group I belong to on Facebook:

While use 'whilst'? You didn't even need to! She actually meant 'while'.

It's okay lady, the best of us get it wrong sometimes. That's why there are Style Guides. Most modern Style Guides denounce the use of 'whilst', and although Internet-folklore and badly edited infotainment would tell you otherwise, 'whilst' is not a term which is widely used.

It kind of reminds me of the time my English teacher kept insisting of the phrase 'make for', as in 'the film makes for a beautiful analogy of Hamlet'. What the hell is 'make for'? It sounds clumsy and pretentious. And it also makes me think of this quote:

Hoad's etymology gives 'whilst' as a derivation of 'whiles', an adverbial form of 'while'. The 't' on the end is parasitic (cf. among~amongst, amid~amidst, etc.). 'Whilst' started to be used as a conjunction, equivalent to 'while', in the 13th century.
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.

2) 'Whilst means 'although', 'at the same time' or 'during the time'.
In terms of using 'whilst' as a conjunction, most of the time you would be better off skipping it all together. Rethinking the lady with the problem CDs, the lady who started this whole thing, there are several avenues she could have taken:

a) 'While I was waiting for the bin to be emptied...'
Okay, so she could have just used 'while'. But she actually meant 'at the same time'.

b) Today I was waiting for the bins to be emptied. In the meantime I sorted CDs.
What she is trying to say is that two things were connected together. The phrase 'in the meantime' or 'meanwhile' always remind me a little of fairy tale language, but in a good way. These two phrases are often used to describe two things happening simultaneously, and may or may not be necessarily connected. Sure, she could have used 'whilst'. Actually, she did. But did it look nice? No. Why?

Because. Conjunctions.

A basic rule of English we break a lot is the use of conjunctions at the beginning of a sentence. The reason we break this rule is simply to make things sound better. We often break this rule in spoken English. In regards to a formal setting conjunctions are rarely used to begin a sentence.

c) Instead of waiting around for the bins to be emptied, I tidied my CD collection.
This is what she actually meant.
So, back to my initial question, why are we using whilst?

Misunderstanding of word usage
Some people use the w-word in spoken conversation on a regular basis and I think this suggests that they know why, when, how and where they should use it. If it is part of your current vocabulary, why change it now?

Expanding your vocabulary
If you haven't used the w-word until now, skip it and find a new term that is used more frequently in everyday conversation. Whilst is old fashioned, quaint sounding and trending slightly at the moment. The problem is that you already have a great knowledge of words you can use in replacement of 'whilst', and half the time you're not overly sure why you're even using it. To expand your vocabulary, find a different group of words. Say, for example, adjectives for the word 'beautiful'. There are plenty of them. Or, better yet, read some books and do some dictionary checking of words you are unfamiliar with. If you're not addicted yet, don't take it up now.

Access to printed media
Let's be a bit frank here.
I admit I'm a bit snobby when it comes to people not reading books because "they don't have time" and "nothing interests me" and "print format is so yesterday". That's where you problem lies, that is, if you are using 'whilst'. How often is it seen in fiction, and indeed, non-fiction and journalism? Rarely. How often is the word actually spoken? Even less rarely. Why? Because anyone who is editing a piece that contains the phrase 'whilst' is going to raise eyebrows and change the word to a more appropriate word choice. (Thank you Style Guides.)

For some crazy reason, and I blame mummy-bloggers and half-arsed editing jobs at websites catering for infotainment, 'whilst' and over hyphenating words and a whole heap of fads are coming and going. There is nothing wrong with these sites, apart from the fact that they could be edited - by someone qualified to do so - and such editing would benefit those who only access reading material online.

Someone else said it first
This is not a reason to start using a word.
 Have you ever found yourself in a situation where the person you're with has a whole substitute vocabulary for 'cuss words'? The time of people who don't say 'crap' and 'shut up', as well as some of my personal choice words? These people see such word usage as vulgar or sinful or distasteful. And suddenly 'fuck' became 'fruit', 'shit' became 'shoot' and the adorably cute 'OMG' became 'golly gosh'. (True story. Also, I know people who actually say OMG aloud. Explain. Please.) Just because someone has decided that 'whilst' is a cool and rather hip word to misuse in social media, does not mean that we should start indulging them. Or, worse, begin using the term ourselves.

I wrote this blog simply as a response to too many people using whilst. And, frankly, it was driving me cuckoo-bananas.