It’s that time of year. Chapters from MA theses and term papers are beginning to come across my desk and one of the mistakes that I see most often is the confusion of while for though. The latter may be used as a concessive conjunction—”Though they were late for church, he kept to the speed limit”—or as an adverb instead of however. “He was committed to writing well, though he had not as much education as he wanted.”
While, however, can be used as a noun, a verb, a conjunction, or an adverb:
Noun: “All the while they walked to school, she never said a word.”
Verb: “I could while away the hours, conferring’ with the flowers, consultin’ with the rain….”
Adverb: “The period while the operation was underway….”
Conjunction: “While we texted I could not get any work done.”
In general, while signifies the passage of time and though is used as a concessive as in “even though it’s late I’m still going to lunch.” Thus, “While he thought it was raining it turned out that it was sunny.” In this case while has been used incorrectly. Though was wanted. While wasn’t used to signal the passage of time but as a concessive conjunction.
There is a third word: “whilst”. This isn’t reflected in the concise Oxford English Dictionary, but in the English I was brought up with, they meant different things, and in my background, people were criticized, not for confusing “while” and “though”, but for confusing “while” and “whilst”.. “While” implied simultaneity, whereas “whilst” implied contrast and could legitimately be used where “though” is correctly used.
But isn’t all this semantics, rather than grammar? This guerilla warfare seems to be spilling over!
Oh, and I’ve never seen or heard “whilst” used as a noun, verb, or adverb!
Sorry, I can’t resist quoting Chomsky’s example of a perfectly grammatical sentence, but one against which you’d be right to conduct a semantics guerrilla warfare: “Colourless, green ideas sleep furiously”.
I always assumed that “while away the hours” was “wile away . . .” I had no idea that while could be used as a verb. Thanks.
Jonathan, wouldn’t that suggest that “wiling away the hours” was quite a clever, subtle, and deceitful thing to do?