Language peeves can develop when a word or phrase becomes, or seems to become, rapidly popular – ongoing, for example. You begin to notice it everywhere, and you say Enough! And then there are usages people dislike for the opposite reason: they’re no longer popular enough. They have become… old-fashioned.
A recent comment got me thinking about whilst, which is generally synonymous with while but has an older, more poetic or formal flavour. Whilst is too stilted for some, and has declined especially in US usage. Lynne Murphy says it’s considered “pretentious and old-fashioned” in AmE, while Bryan Garner calls it “virtually obsolete” there.
Amongst and amidst share the –st ending that alters their tone in some ears. (Again/against are an exceptional pair, their standard meanings being discrete.) But MWDEU says the commentators who call amongst quaint or overrefined are “off target”, and it has a good discussion of amid and amidst and the supposed distinctions between them.
The –st, if you were wondering, is a fossilised inflection. Michael Quinion says the form
contains the –s of the genitive ending (which we still have today, though usually written as ’s, of course). In Middle English, this was often added to words used as adverbs (as while became whiles, which often turned up in the compound adverbs somewhiles and otherwhiles). What seems to have happened is that a –t was later added in the south of England through confusion with the superlative ending –st (as in gentlest).
I see whilst regularly when editing academic prose, and I don’t change it. Its users don’t find it archaic or affected: it’s simply their instinctive preference in that context. All three words – whilst, amongst, amidst – have fallen from favour a bit, but Google Books data shows they’ve been holding steady for several decades; whilst and amongst, in particular, enjoy plenty of currency in modern British English:
While/whilst has two main senses as a conjunction: one temporal, meaning during the time that or as long as; the other contrastive, essentially synonymous with although or whereas. The OED and Merriam-Webster include another, less common sense: similarly and at the same time that (e.g., “while the book will be welcomed by scholars, it will make an immediate appeal to the general reader”).
Here are a few examples of the time-related sense:
Whilst you are discussing fashion, the fashion has gone by.
Please do not read the lyrics whilst listening to the recordings.
These foods are strictly forbidden whilst following the diet.
And the contrastive senses:
Whilst no evening meal is provided there are plenty of local pubs.
The Communists favoured wage increases, whilst the other parties argued these would be inflationary.
Whilst that is a very improbable fact, nevertheless it is true.
Some people use whilst in one of these guises but not the other, or they may use while and whilst more or less interchangeably, or other factors may come into play (more on this shortly). Given the slight but significant potential for ambiguity, it’s understandable that some speakers would differentiate them semantically.
Looking up whilst on the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) and the British National Corpus (BNC), I found a strong disparity in both frequency and genre distribution.
I also took four random samplings of whilst-usages from COCA, the BNC, and Google Books US (the examples above come from these sources). The samples were modest (n=100), but they show the transatlantic difference. The temporal sense of whilst was dominant in the US samples, though lower than I expected (63 and 66), while the contrastive senses were marginally more popular (59 and 52) in the UK samples.
Corpus data is fine for figures, less so for feelings and attitudes. So I asked on Twitter and I learned that people find one or other of the –st forms gross, wrong, archaic, cringe-worthy, clumsy, self-important, loathsome, priggish, precious and of course old-fashioned. Others, however, consider them normal, natural, poetic, and lovable, and some described the different ways they used them.
Here’s a flavour:
If you want to see the rest – they make for a fascinating browse – I’ve collected them on Storify. Further opinions and dialectal observations may be read on this ‘Semantic Enigmas’ page at the Guardian.
Conventions in language change like fashion. There is a relatively stable core, but on the surface it’s all change: drifts, shifts, cliques and tweaks. Fads arise and trends develop as fast as we can keep up with them, while other changes are gradual but inexorable.
These shifts and patterns are not evenly distributed. A usage may decline in one community while remaining popular in another, where it may develop different connotations or applications. So what strikes one person as fusty or poncey may be routine and useful to another, as we’ve seen with whilst and company.
It’s the difference between finding something wrong or awful, and declaring categorically that it is wrong or awful, and thereby implying there’s something wrong with other dialects. Whilst it’s natural to leap from personal experience to universal proclamation, this is merely a subjective preference, and should be understood as such. It’s a bias.
Your thoughts and observations on whilst, amongst and amidst would be welcome. I’ll also update the Storify if you want to respond on Twitter.
Lucy Ferriss at Lingua Franca has noticed a surge in –st forms in undergraduate writing in the US, and has written a helpful post on their possible motivations and the acceptability of these usages.