Get amongst it

GetAmongstIt

Just as new words come in (twerking, anybody? don’t worry, the link is the very SFW OED’s online quarterly update of new words), some words draw a resigned last breath and fade away. It may be that the thing they refer to no longer exists:

snollygoster: a 19th century American word for ‘a dishonest or corrupt politician’. Or, to take an original definition from the editor of a Georgia newspaper: ‘a snollygoster is a fellow who wants office, regardless of party, platform or principles, and who, whenever he wins, gets there by the sheer force of monumental talknophical assumnacy’.

Or that we have found a new word for this thing:

gelicide n 1656–1681:  Frost. ‘Unfortunately, the flowers were killed too soon by an early gelicide.’

Some words, such as ‘whilst’ and ‘amongst’, are in the act of disappearing as we speak. Both the -st forms are old, coming out of Middle English (12th–15th centuries), but not as old as the plainer forms ‘while’ and ‘among’, which come out of Old English (up to the 11th century).

There is now a lot of geographical variation in the use of ‘whilst’ and ‘amongst’, which are used more in British English than by Australians and Americans. Yet the Brits, Aussies and Americans all prefer ‘while’ and ‘among’ over ‘whilst’ and ‘amongst’.

Caution: data ahead

A search for ‘whilst:while’ and ‘amongst:among’ in Brigham Young University’s GLoWBE (corpus of Global Web-based English) shows these occurrences for each word in the US, Australia and the UK.

  • In the US, ‘while’ occurs around 50 times more often that ‘whilst’, and ‘among’ occurs around 13 times more often than ‘amongst’.
  • In Australia, ‘while’ occurs around 8 times more often than ‘whilst’, and ‘among’ occurs around 3 times more often than ‘amongst’.
  • In the UK, ‘while’ occurs around 5 times more often that ‘whilst’, and ‘among’ occurs around 3 times more often than ‘amongst’.

GAI_T1

The GLoWBE corpus shows a more contemporary use and a larger range of use than might be found from books, but Brigham Young University also have data generated from the text found in Google Books. These would have more consistently conformed to the publishing standards of the day and can be compared by date, so you can see how the relative use of the ‘whilst’ and ‘amongst’ forms has dropped:

GAI_T2

But why all the fuss about these two slowly disappearing words?

I still see a lot of ‘whilst’ and ‘amongst’ in my work, and to conform with the style guides set by my clients, I normally change it. There are two main concerns people have about changing to the more common form:

  • some people feel that the ‘-st’ forms are more grammatically correct
  • some people worry that there is a difference in meaning between the two forms, so that each must be used within a particular context.

Grammatical correctness

To check for grammatical correctness, I go to dictionaries and style guides.

Australian: The Style manual doesn’t mention ‘whilst’ or ‘amongst’. Pam Peters’ Australian English Style Guide says ‘whilst’ is ‘conspicuous by its absence in the daily press in Australia and Britain, and is most formally represented in formal and literary nonfiction’. ‘Amongst’ also appears more frequently in ‘more rhetorical and literary styles, in religious writing as well has higher-brow fiction and humour’. Of ‘while’, the Macquarie Dictionary says ‘conjunction while [earlier whilest, from whiles + inorganic -t, as in amongst]; of amongst, it says ‘preposition among’, and also describes how ‘amongst’ is part of the verbal phrases ‘get amongst’ and ‘get amongst it’.

British: Both editions of Fowler’s (1926 and 2000) have ‘whilst’ as a variant of ‘while’, noting that it is not used in American English, and go on to describe all the ways people incorrectly use ‘while’ – for example, to mean ‘and’ – without drawing any distinction between ‘while’ and ‘whilst’.

American: The Little, Brown Handbook doesn’t mention ‘whilst’ or ‘amongst’. The Associated Press Stylebook Online says this:

Q: Does AP have a preference between the use of “while” vs. “whilst”? – from 75251, Texas on Thu, Jan 27, 2011; A: AP stories use while. Whilst is a chiefly British form.

All this checking shows that there really is no difference between the two forms; the ‘-st’ forms are used interchangeably with the non ‘-st’ forms, and both are grammatically correct.

Usage

However, the ‘-st’ forms seem to lend a certain tone to writing, which in British English might be called ‘formality’ and in American English might be called ‘snootiness’.

The best explanation I could find for how these -st forms even came about is from World Wide Words, which basically says that the possessive form ‘-s’ was added so the conjunction could be used adverb, and then the ‘t’ was added in southern England in confusion with the superlative ‘-est’ addition (such as in ‘gentlest’).

Having checked all the sources I find reputable, I then started looking at other sites and found a bit more explanation of regional use, and also some (unsourced) views about what ‘some’ grammarians apparently think.

Grammar monster has this paragraph about ‘whilst’ as a conjunction, but I didn’t find any evidence of this in the grammar sources I checked:

Some grammarians engaged in the while-whilst debate claim that, in the meaning during the time that or at the same time as, whilst should be used for a short period of time and while should be used for a longer period of time. Building on this idea, some claim that whilst is like when and while is more like during. Some try to formalise this idea a little more, stating that while should be used with the past progressive tense.

Also, this site did explain how ‘while’ can be a noun, a verb and a conjunction, whereas ‘whilst’ can only be a conjunction:

  • “I’ll be there in a while.” (noun)
  • “I’d while away the hours.” (verb)
  • “I’ll sleep while/whilst you’re shopping.” (conjunction)

And in some regional dialects there is a real distinction, as shown in these responses to a Guardian ‘Semantic enigmas’ question:

The while/whilst distinction is made in several dialects, mostly those of the South. The distinction being between substantive and adverbial/conjunction. I find that contempt for this minor feature of the English language is most often harboured by those who believe it, even though a dialectal feature, to be a sign of pretention.

Rurik Greenall, Trondheim, Norway

In some Midlands dialects, there has been a distinct difference – “whilst” meaning “during the time when” and “while” meaning “until, up to point when”, e.g. “Look after this whilst I’m gone” or “Look after this while I come back”. Sounds wrong to the purist, but in Rutland they would know what you meant.

S Killingworth, Wimbledon

The upshot is that it’s equally correct in terms of grammar to use ‘while’ or ‘whilst’ (as a conjunction), and ‘among’ or ‘amongst’, but it will mark your writing as being British, formal, possibly pretentious.

And note that while you can set the cat ‘among’ the pigeons just as easily as ‘amongst’ the pigeons, you can only ‘get amongst it’. You can’t have that any other way.

___________________________________________________________________________

Sources

AP. 2013. AP Stylebook Online. Apstylebook.com.Birchfield RW. 2000. Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Revised 3rd Edition. Oxford University Press. Oxford.
Fowler HW. 1926. A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1st ed.). Clarendon Press. Oxford.
Peters. P. 1995. The Cambridge Australian English Style Guide.
Snooks and Co. 2002. Style manual for authors, editors and printers, 6th edn, John Wiley & Sons, Milton, Qld.
Cambridge University Press. Cambridge.
Oxford Dictionaries blog: http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/august-2013-update/.
The Phrontistery Compendium of Lost Words: http://phrontistery.info/clw.html
Online Etymology Dictionary: http://www.etymonline.com/index.php.
Grammar Girl: http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/although-versus-while?page=all
World Wide Words: http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-whi2.htm
Grammar Monster: http://www.grammar-monster.com/easily_confused/while_whilst.htm
The Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2013/oct/09/mark-forsyth-the-horologicon-top-10-lost-words
The Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/notesandqueries/query/0,5753,-5498,00.html
And the image: poly-mer on Tumbler.
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2 Responses to Get amongst it

  1. Calista says:

    Great post!
    I’m often confronted with the while/whilst and among/amongst debates, and for consistency and ‘ease of argument’ always revert to whatever the house style has indicated. In my experience, I find the older, more senior writers will use the ‘-st’, but I don’t want to appear ageist.
    I believe though – as your last sentence highlights – that sometimes only one of the words will be appropriate for use in context.

    • Ruth Davies says:

      Thanks, Calista. I’m interested in other instances of where only ‘whilst’ or ‘amongst’ will work – that was the only example I could think of. Do you know of others?

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