While vs. Whiles vs. Whilst

While, Whiles, Whilst – how are they different?

The word “while” is the most common, it appears 214 times in the Authorized Version; the word “whiles” only appears 10 times. The word “whilst” doesn’t appear at all.

While can be used as a noun to denote a period a time (“all the while my breath is in me” …. “stand thou still a while, that I may shew thee the word of God“), but more commonly as an adverbial conjunction showing some time relationship (“it is of no strength at all while the testator liveth” … “And while he lingered“).

However the words whiles and whilst are only used as while is in the conjunction sense, and are never used as nouns.

The word “whiles” has generally fallen into disuse, yet whilst has became popular instead in England. Some people in England seem to commonly use whilst in preference over while and yet can’t explain why. It is difficult to catch the differences in meaning or state rules for when one form of should be preferred over another.

In the verse “Whiles it remained was it not thine own? … thou hast not lied unto men, but unto God.” (Acts 5:4) it would have been equally proper to use the word “while” instead. However the choice of “whiles” seems to be made for emphasis – thus highlighting that the money was their own at the time when they unnecessarily lied about it.

Likewise, “Agree with thine adversary quickly, whiles thou art in the way with him; lest at any time the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison.” (Matt 5:25). Likewise here, either “while” or “whiles” would be correct, however “whiles” seems to put greater emphasis on the word to show the timing for the need to get right prior to judgment.

In England today many might formulate these same statements by using the word “whilst” instead – and it wouldn’t change the meaning – it too would be simply a more prominent alternative to ‘while.

So what is happening here?

I don’t see any straightforward answer, but I think that the confusion arose from ambiguities in trying to make ‘while‘ into a superlative.

The concept of ‘while’ means period of time, so a way to emphasize it might be to make it plural – whiles. Using the plural for the conjunctive form seems unnecessary, but it might have been employed on occasion for stress. So changing ‘X is done while Y happens’ into ‘X is done whiles Y happens’ might indicate it happens with greater frequency – and therefore puts emphasis on that concept as the central idea of the sentence. It remains a rather nebulous change in exact meaning between the two – but the second one comes off as being slightly more emphatic on that point.

Another way to add emphasis is by the superlative ending of -st (bad, to worse, to worst). Perhaps seeking to state the word while in its ‘extreme’ form more clearly according to the familiar superlative ending, people gradually changed the form ‘whiles‘ into ‘whilst‘.

Conclusion: While is the standard word that should be used in most conjunctive situations; the alternative conjunctions whiles and whilst mean exactly the same thing with slightly greater stress. Their overuse should be avoided.


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