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The difference between while and whilst

If you are uncertain whether to use while or whilst, it is always preferable to use while.

In the course of my work I read dozens of dissertations written by post-graduate students from countries far to the north of South Africa such as Malawi, Gabon, Cameroon and Nigeria. None of these students is a first-language English speaker and I have noticed that without exception they use the word whilst – never while – and this made me wonder about these two words. I have always regarded whilst as archaic, pompous, too formal and, at best, rather quaint, but none of these young men and women is any of these things.

So what is the difference? Although in British English both spellings are correct, whilst is becoming less common than it used to be – except among the educated people of Africa, apparently. American English uses while for all forms of the word. And it is advisable never to use whilst when speaking.

Not always do while and whilst mean precisely the same thing. When used as a noun while (from the Old English hwil) means ‘a period of time, usually short’ e.g. wait here for a while.

It can also be used as a verb e.g. to while away the time or as a preposition (meaning ‘until’) although this usage is archaic. It is important to note that whilst cannot be used either as a noun or a verb.

It is as a conjunction, however, that they have the same meaning and can be used interchangeably. Here they mean ‘during the time that’ e.g. watch the kettle while I leave the kitchen. Other meanings include ‘whereas’ and ‘although’ e.g. a qualified mechanic can repair the engine, while I haven’t a clue. Their use as a conjunction dates back to the 1500s.

If you are uncertain whether to use while or whilst, remember that it is always preferable to use while.

Distinction between dependant and dependent.

Is it necessary to make a distinction between dependant and dependent?

This is confusing to say the least! From time to time I have to think twice before deciding whether to use the word dependant or dependent. I am never quite sure. It’s all right for Americans because they don’t make such a distinction and always use dependent.

In British English, however, dependant is the noun (someone, such as a child, who depends on another, especially for financial support) and dependent the adjective (e.g. dependent on drugs).
For those who are interested, the word has its roots in Latin (de = down, and pendeo, pependi = to hang from, to be suspended). The pendulum of a clock has similar origins.

Do you think American English loses something by not making this distinction between dependant and dependent? Or is it unnecessary to make such a distinction in the first place?

Ordnance and ordinance: what’s the difference?

Ordnance and ordinance: what’s the difference?

If you were imprudent enough to discharge government ordnance in the city centre, the chances are that you would fall foul of some government ordinance. That’s hardly surprising. Yet most right-minded people would probably come to the same conclusion without fully understanding or even caring about the difference. So what is the difference?

An ordinance is a government law or decree, usually at municipal level, whereas ordnance refers to military materials, mainly weapons and ammunition.

Both words have the same Latin root (to arrange or set in order) and entered our language via Middle English, after which they split and took on different meanings and spelling.

So one little letter can make a big difference.

Presume and Assume: is there a difference?

Presume and Assume, there is a subtle difference.

When the celebrated Victorian explorer and missionary Dr David Livingstone went ‘missing’ in the wilds of Africa for over six years the journalist-cum-adventurer Sir Henry Morton Stanley set out to find him. In November 1871 he eventually found Livingstone on the shores of Lake Tanganyika and legend has it that Stanley greeted him with the words “Doctor Livingstone, I presume.”

Now why did Stanley say ‘presume’ and not ‘assume’? Is there a difference? The short answer is yes there is – a subtle one.

In common usage both mean to suppose or to take something as a given, and may be used interchangeably.  The difference is merely one of degree. Assume is somewhat weaker or less authoritative in meaning than presume. When a speaker is unsure of his facts he makes an assumption but when he is reasonably sure of them he makes a presumption.

So Stanley was technically quite correct. Given the circumstances, it was highly unlikely that the man beside the waters of Lake Tanganyika was anyone other than Dr Livingstone, so saying presume and not assume was correct.