Today’s topic is “although” versus “while.”
I often have to tell people that their pet peeves aren’t actually hard-and-fast grammar rules. I have to tell people that it’s OK to split infinitives, and that in some cases it’s fine to end a sentence with a preposition or use the word “between” when they’re choosing among more than two items.
I know it’s upsetting to learn that your nearest and dearest beliefs are wrong, so this week, I’m going to talk about my own mistaken peeve. It bugs me no end when people use “while” to mean “although” or “whereas,” but no matter how hard I looked, I couldn’t convince myself that I am right.
‘Although’: A Concessive Conjunction
You see, I think “although”means “in spite of the fact that,” as in “Although Sir Fragalot is tall, Squiggly and Aardvark consider him an equal.” “Although” is what’s called a concessive conjunction, meaning that it is used to express a concession.
‘While’: A Sense of Time
On the other hand, I believe “while” should be reserved to mean “at the same time.” It should have a temporal sense, as in “While Squiggly gathered wood, Aardvark hid the maracas.”
At first I was sure I was right because in his book Usage and Abusage, Eric Partridge said that “’while’ for ‘although’ is a perverted use of the correct sense of ‘while,’ which properly means ‘at the same time.’”
‘While’ Meaning ‘Although’
Ha! But, then I discovered that Fowler’s Modern English Usage says it is normal and acceptable to use “while” to mean “although.”(2) Fowler even called Partridge’s comment “indefensible.” It’s a grammar rumble, people!
Next, I checked the Oxford English Dictionary, and it backs up Fowler with an entry saying “while”can mean “although.” Two additional dictionaries concurred. Further, Bryan Garner says the non-temporal use of “while” (in other words, “while” to mean “although” or “whereas”) ranks at stage 5 on his language-change index (3) — stage 5, which he defines as “universally accepted (not counting pseudo-snoot eccentrics).”
Ouch. I don’t want to be a pseudo-snoot eccentric. I was thwarted, but I’d given it a good shot.
One reason I’m telling this story is that I want you to know that I go to this much trouble to validate all your pet peeves too, but sometimes it isn’t possible.
The Confusion Exception
My only small vindication is that there are times when it’s confusing to use “while” to mean “although” or “whereas,” (4) and then it isn’t allowed. For example, if you were to say, “While Squiggly is yellow, Aardvark is blue,” people wouldn’t know whether you were contrasting the two characters’ colors or saying that Aardvark is only blue when Squiggly is yellow. In cases like that, you have to use “although” or “whereas.”
So, moving forward, in my own writing, I’ll continue to reserve “while” for times when I mean “at the same time” because old habits are hard to break, but I’ll stop automatically striking out “while” every time I see it in a document.
Next, I have two related bonus facts.
‘Although’ Versus ‘Though’
First, it’s fine to substitute “though” for “although.” In the way we’re using it here, “though” is simply a less formal version of “although,” and it’s in such common use that it’s OK to use it in formal writing too. In fact, “though” came before “although.” In the 1300s, before “although” became one word, it was two words — “all” and “though”— with the “all” there to add emphasis to “though.” (5,6)
You can’t always do the opposite and substitute “although” for “though” because “though” also has other meanings. Here are two examples where you couldn’t make a substitution.
He ran as though zombies were chasing him.
Cats make me sneeze; I love dogs, though.
‘While’ Versus ‘Whilst’
Second, “while” and “whilst” mean the same thing. Although “whilst” is still used in British English, it is considered archaic in American English. (1, 7) It’s just one of those quirks of language that “whilst” survived in Britain but perished in America. If you’re an American who wants to sound snooty, you can use “whilst” in place of “while,” but I don’t recommend it.
‘Among’ Versus ‘Amongst’ (in the ‘Between’ Versus ‘Among’ article)