What’s Up with Amongst, Amidst, and Whilst?

36

Which do you prefer: among or amongst? amid or amidst? while or whilst?

Let’s be clear: this is a matter of preference, not correctness. Amongst is a legitimate and commonly-used alternative to among. And the same goes for amidst and whilst.

These -st forms come across as old-fashioned to many — mostly American — ears. They have a King James/Shakespearean ring to them. But according to the OED blog, among and while are older than amongst and whilst, which were formed during the Middle Ages. I assume the same is true for amid and amidst. You may consider them outdated, but it’s not legitimate to dismiss amongst, amidst and whilst as archaic, both because among, amid, and while are actually older forms, and because all three are still in common popular use.

These three prepositions are, however, holdovers from earlier days of English development, which makes me wonder why thee and thou have dropped out of use along with the -est and -eth inflections, whilst these three have endured. We’ll never know.

In terms of dictionary definition, there is no difference between among and amongst, amid and amidst, or while and whilst. They are interchangeable. On both sides of the Atlantic, the truncated versions are more common, but you are much more likely to hear amongst, amidst, and whilst in the United Kingdom than in the States.

In researching this issue online, I’ve come across several explanations for usage difference between amongst and among. Some claim that amongst sounds nicer prior to words beginning with vowel sounds or to avoid a glottal stop. Others suggest all kinds of subtle differences in usage (e.g., amongst for “relations between individual constituents of groups” and among for simply “within the group”), but none of these explanations is backed up by any print authority or by actual use in print. Individuals may prefer one over the other in particular situations, but it remains a matter of subjective preference. There is no authoritative rule differentiating them.

This doesn’t stop people from feeling strongly one way or the other, of course. Some insist that the -st versions are outmoded, pointless, and/or pretentious and should always be replaced by their shorter contemporary forms. Others argue that amongst, amidst, and whilst are more elegant, trip easier off the tongue, or are subtly distinct in meaning and should be preserved.

I say do as you like, just don’t pretend either is somehow more correct than the other. In your writing, you are less likely to raise hackles if you stick to among, amid, and while. Some style guides, in fact, insist on it. But if you are British, or an American who values panache over simplicity, feel free to append an -st to these words. Let’s just be civil about it, shall we?

For those interested in such things, here are some graphs via Google’s n-gram viewer that demonstrate preference in published works over time. Notice that since 1800 among and while have been preferred to amongst and whilst, but amidst was more popular than amid until about 1850 and is only slightly preferred even today. The significance of this fact, however, escapes me.

Among vs. Amongst

Amid vs. Amidst

While vs. Whilst

*****

Have an opinion on this issue? Please comment below and feel free to discuss amongst yourselves.

About the Author

Brian Wasko

Brian WaskoBrian is the founder and president of WriteAtHome.com. One of his passions is to teach young people how to write better.View all posts by Brian Wasko

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    I agree with the ‘midst’ example. That is what I used to think and, therefore, thought all of the above words are relevant today. It’s simply the connotation. Like: I was waiting for a while or all the while. Here while denotes a quantity of time. But ‘whilst’ denotes that one is in the middle of doing something. Like: ‘Whilst’ I was cooking I burnt myself. Sometimes starting a sentence with a ‘while’ could also have the same connotation as ‘although’. Like: While on the other hand….

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  27. Ryan Belcher
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    I wonder if the key here is the word “midst.” You can have a thief in your midst, but you can’t have a thief in your mid. So as long as that turn of phrase sticks around “amidst” will still seem common/modern.

    To me amongst has a “village slang” flavor, while whilst tastes Victorian.

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko08-09-2013

      I hadn’t thought about “midst.” Interesting.

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