Grammar Guerilla: While And Though

The distinction between while and though is neglected but should be recovered. The writer observes it is clearer and more useful to his reader. Most often today, even in edited publications (e.g., newspapers, magazines, and books) one sees them used interchangeably and typically as if both only signal a concessive clause. This is incorrect not because English does not change but because some changes signal a decline rather than an improvement.

As is often the case the solution here begins with definitions. While now, as it has since the 10th century, has reference to the passage of time. Even the Scarecrow, who wanted a brain, knew that.

Scarecrow would “while away the hours” because he knew that the verb “to while” meant to pass the time. If we remember that the noun while means “as time passes” and the verb means “to spend time” then we can see a clear difference between while and though. If you mean to signal the passage of time, use while:

While Joey Bagadonuts stood look out, Louie ransacked the Bodega looking for Doritos.

Joey is doing one job and Louie another but they are doing them simultaneously.

By contrast, though signals a concessive clause, which is a way of communicating to the reader that one thing is happening despite the fact that something else is also true. In this case time is not in view. It is often used with the qualifier even:

Even though Louie was not a very good at it, Joey Bagodonuts always made him drive.

Though signals that despite the fact that one thing is true of Louie, namely, he is a poor driver, another thing is also true, i.e., Joey wants to conduct the burglary himself. Though concedes one thing and asserts another.

Writers often confuse while for though by using while to signal a concessive. This is unnecessary. When you mean to signal the passage of time, use while. When you mean to express a concessive or perhaps a contrast, use though.

Though virtually no one observes the distinction, while I have anything to say about it, I will continue to encourage writers to distinguish the two.

4 comments

  1. Commentators in England have highlighted “whilst” as the word for which “while” is wrongly substituted. I wonder, is there a difference in meaning between “whilst” and “though”?

  2. I’m rather keen on good grammar myself, but on this occasion I have to disagree with some of this. Of course ‘while’ as a verb, an adverb, or a noun refers to the passage of time, BUT there is a perfectly good use of ‘while’ as a conjunction to express contrast and apparent inconsistency. Thus, ‘John played the flute while Mary played the piano’ likely means (because of the lack of a comma) that they played at the same time, whereas ‘John sang a song, while Mary recited a poem’ (note the comma) does not refer to simultaneous time but shows contrast. Even without the comma (and there are no commas in speech), context (and inflection in speech) might supply the sense of contrast. Here ‘while’ performs a similar function to ‘whereas’: ‘John sang a song, whereas Mary recited a poem’.

    Neither does ‘while’ refer to time when it is used in the sense of ‘although’, ‘notwithstanding’, ‘in spite of the fact that’. For example, ‘while I have every sympathy for those upset by bad grammar, matters are not always as straightforward as they seem’ is perfectly good English and has no reference to time. This usage has been employed by good English speakers and writers for centuries, and is found in translations of the Bible, including American ones. For example, in 2 Peter 2:19 (literally, ‘promising them freedom, themselves being slaves of the corruption’) most English translations choose to render the text by way of contrast, thus in the ESV, ‘They promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption’. There is no ‘but’ in the Greek, and other conjunctions are possible. Accordingly, many use the ‘while’ construction in the sense of ‘in spite of the fact that’, ‘notwithstanding’ etc, and it has no reference to time, but refers to that which is apparently inconsistent:

    ‘While they promise them liberty, they themselves are the servants of corruption’ KJV (also Noah Webster)

    ‘promising them liberty, while they themselves are bondservants of corruption’ ASV

    ‘promising them freedom while they themselves are slaves of corruption’ NASB

    ‘They promise them freedom, while they themselves are slaves of depravity’ NIV

    The NASB is to be faulted not for its use of ‘while’, but for failing to put a comma before it, so that in English the sense could be misunderstood as referring to time.

    The KJV usage shows that this usage of ‘while’ has an old pedigree for flagging up an apparent inconsistency. In this sense of ‘although’, ‘notwithstanding’, ‘in spite of the fact that’ the word ‘while’ is being used similarly to the word ‘though’, but in a stronger sense.

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